The words “utility” and “transformational” are rarely, if ever, tossed together in the same sentence. Yet utilities say they are expecting an overhaul of their business in the coming decades, and many realize such a metamorphosis is essential to survival. 

The 13th annual global survey of utility executives from consulting firm PwC found that 94 percent of participants said the utility business model would undergo important changes or a complete transformation between now and 2030.

If that timeframe seems a little lengthy compared to the evolution of other sectors, it is. But in utility years, it’s practically the speed of light. Even more interesting is utilities' increasing acknowledgement that they need to change. 

PwC utilities survey

The changing dynamics, especially the move to decentralized generation and the need for two-way power flows to accommodate assets at the grid’s edge, have been happening for some time. What is interesting is that the region with the highest expectation of transformation is not Europe with its aggressive renewable goals, but rather Asia, where nearly 70 percent of participants see transformation coming.

Many of those surveyed don’t see a world that ditches centralized generation all together, but rather a mix of distributed energy resources and more centralized plants. But it doesn’t take a complete overhaul of the generation mix to cause havoc for utilities.

PwC utilities survey

A free report that was just released by GTM Research looks at the issues at the grid edge that are driving the changes happening in the electric utility market. With enough rooftop PV on a distribution circuit or a large number of wind farms on a single feeder, utilities have to find ways to balance the intermittent renewable power while still using as much of it as possible.

An important finding from the PwC survey is that it’s not just renewables, it’s also the first fuel -- that is, energy efficiency -- that is driving investment for many utilities, particularly in Asia.

PwC utilities survey

No matter what the drivers are, experts across the industry agree that the time is now for investment in new systems and regulatory overhaul. By 2030, some utilities could very well be left behind in the new energy economy.

“Technology changes, particularly in IT, and the potential that arises from smart grids and demand-side management is going to change the business model in the power utilities sector,” asserted Jeroen van Hoof, assurance leader at PwC Power & Utilities. “The big question is whether existing players are capable of driving that change, or whether the momentum will come from other entrants. If it’s the latter, the role of existing utilities could shift to the low-margin business of providing backup capacity.”