Here are 20 companies and partnerships making change on the cutting edge of distributed energy and grid integration.
by Jeff St. John
April 11, 2016
The 20th-century power grid is an engineering marvel, delivering power generated at central power plants to millions of end customers through a transmission and distribution network that represents the world’s largest machine. The 21st century power grid will be all this, plus a lot more.
This new grid will require technologies and business models that can link utilities and customers to turn distributed energy resources like rooftop solar and electric vehicles from grid disruptors into grid assets. It will also need new regulatory structures and energy markets to allow the cost-effective application of energy efficiency, demand management and energy storage systems required to integrate massive amounts of intermittent wind and solar power into the grid at large.
For the past three years, Greentech Media has been highlighting some of the companies at the heart of this transformation with its Grid Edge Awards list. This year’s winners include some of the country’s biggest utilities and grid vendors, as well as behind-the-scenes technology providers and software startups, and several projects that bring utilities and third parties together in innovative ways. Awardees are nominated by and voted on by energy industry stakeholders, including the team of analysts at GTM Research.
The energy storage industry could really use some standards, according to 1Energy Systems — and the company wants its software to be at the heart of them. Since its 2011 founding, the Seattle-based startup has deployed its software to manage battery projects at home-state utilities Snohomish PUD and Puget Sound Energy, AES Energy Storage’s 20-megawatt Cochrane project in Chile, Duke Energy’s Rankin battery project, and Austin Energy’s 1.5-megawatt project.
1Energy has also gathered a growing roster of battery and inverter makers, grid technology vendors and utilities around its Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA) Alliance. The MESA Device specification, developed in partnership with the SunSpec Alliance, is meant to allow batteries, inverters and other energy storage components to interoperate smoothly. The MESA ESS specification extends that interoperability to utility SCADA and DMS platforms, and potentially to non-utility energy storage aggregators.
1Energy’s ambitions extend beyond batteries as well, with the October launch of its Distributed Energy Resource Optimizer, or DERO, platform. The proving points for this application of its underlying software are coming through its work with original utility partner Snohomish PUD, as well as in Austin Energy’s solar-storage integration work under its $4.3 million SHINES grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot program.
Managing the complexities of the grid edge requires managing an immense amount of data, coming in a multiplicity of formats and time signatures, from a wide variety of distributed energy resources. AutoGrid Systems has built its business on analyzing and making sense of this data, through its underlying cloud-based unstructured data analytics and management engine, dubbed its Energy Data Platform, and applications developed in-house and with a long list of energy industry partners.
Since its 2012 unveiling, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup has landed projects withutilities in California, Oklahoma and Texas, has secured funding from Japan’s NTT andGermany’s E.ON, the Bonneville Power Administration, and other partners. Its first application, dubbed its Demand Response Optimization and Management System, has grown from helping Oklahoma Gas & Electric optimize its smart thermostat-based load management program, to enabling Dutch utility Eneco create a “software-defined power plant” from responsive loads and generation resources at commercial and industrial sites.
The behind-the-meter energy landscape is ripe with assets that can be enlisted to help serve both customer and utility energy needs. That’s the business that Blue Pillar has taken on. Starting from its roots designing and testing emergency backup power systems for hospitals, the Indianapolis-based company has since expanded into networking and automating control of a wide variety of behind-the-meter assets.
Blue Pillar has converted this expertise and library of device data into a software platform, dubbed Aurora, that it’s now making available to utilities and energy service providers including NRG Energy. The idea is to turn its behind-the-meter smarts into a distributed energy resources management software platform, allowing for building energy needs and grid energy needs to be aligned.
BMW Group isn’t just one of the many automakers that are building electric vehicles. It’s also building out a comprehensive strategy to integrate them, and the energy storage opportunities they represent, into a broader energy management strategy. That include BMW’s iCharge Forward program, which launched last year and unveiled its first major project with California utility Pacific Gas & Electric in January.
It also involves the testing of “second-life” batteries in stationary applications, with an inaugural array featuring software from startup Geli, inverters from Princeton Power and Kaco, and EV chargers from ChargePoint and ABB.
Earlier this year BMW denied reports that it’s planning an entry into the behind-the-meter energy storage market, although it’s also working with German heating systems maker Viessmann Group on a joint venture called Digital Energy Solutions to manage energy management systems at commercial and industrial customers in Germany and Austria.
The country’s biggest utility is also one of its most innovative, in terms of bridging the gap between traditional utility business models and the grid edge. One of its most notable efforts is its “Coalition of the Willing,” which has gathered a growing number of companies to build equipment around common technology specifications to allow them to communicate and act in the field, sometimes independently of central control.
That work has led to the creation of a new technical specification, the Open Field Message Bus (OpenFMB), now being developed as a standard by the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel. Omnetric Group, a joint venture between Siemens and Accenture, has played an important role in this work, taking on interoperability testingwith the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Duke has also committed to other interoperability standards, such as the MESA standard for energy storage, and is testing them out in real-world microgrid settings.
While this work is going on at Duke’s regulated utilities, its unregulated arm is expanding into new business models through Duke Energy Renewables. The group includes acquisitions California solar installer REC Solar and energy management company Phoenix Energy Technologies, and it is working with partners including Green Charge Networks to bring comprehensive solar-storage-energy management solutions to commercial and industrial customers.
EnergySage and National Grid
More and more utilities are exploring how best to develop a long-term solution for supporting distributed solar, whether it’s through distribution grid upgrades to support net-metered solar or by seeking permission to own their own rooftop PV. But National Grid is the first electric utility in the country to collaborate with a solar marketplace, through its partnership with EnergySage. Its SolarWise Rhode Island project, launched this spring, allows customers to comparison-shop solar opportunities for their home or business and receive competitive quotes from prescreened installers via EnergySage’s online marketplace.
National Grid, meanwhile, provides a long-term solar payment as an alternative arrangement to the state’s net-metering credit, with premiums for customers who reduce their energy consumption before installing PV. That potentially opens the rooftop PV proposition to homes and businesses for which it wouldn’t otherwise make economic sense, while also giving the utility some input and guidance for the process of bringing its customers solar.
While other utilities, such as Georgia Power, have launched solar marketplace platforms, they’ve largely been tied to utility-specific offerings. National Grid and EnergySage are among the first to open the platform to the hundreds of installers linked up through the EnergySage platform. The startup has won the endorsement of the Solar Energy Industries Association, and is looking for other utilities that want to join forces.
Green Mountain Power
One might say that Green Mountain Power has more opportunities than your average utility. It’s the chief investor-owned utility in the state of Vermont, but the state’s alternative energy regulatory system has allowed it to bring novel business models and technologies to market, and to support expansion of solar net metering where other utilities have fought it tooth and nail.
Green Mountain Power’s “Energy City of the Future” project is the centerpiece of this innovation. The project in Rutland, Vermont will combine rooftop solar, behind-the-meter batteries, smart thermostats, energy-efficiency improvements, and real-time connectivity to its distribution grid and customer data systems, with the goal of aligning customer and utility needs. The project includes Dynapower and SolarEdge inverters, solar installer groSolar, and up to 500 of Tesla’s Powerwall batteries, which will be made available through a first-of-its-kind utility sales and leasing program that allows the utility to reduce costs to customers in exchange for making the batteries’ capabilities available to the utility.
Gridco Systems and Hawaiian Electric
Hawaiian Electric has been investing in many different technologies to help manage the increasing amount of intermittent wind and solar power coming onto its island grids. But one project in particular won an award for renewable-grid integration at this year’s DistribuTech conference — its deployment of Gridco’s in-line power regulators (IPRs) to stabilize voltages on a set of west Oahu circuits heavily loaded with distributed PV.
Gridco’s IPRs are among a class of new power electronics devices that can deliver an unprecedented level of digital control over the alternating current energizing the distribution grid, including voltage regulation, reactive power compensation and harmonic mitigation. HECO’s deployment, underway since last year, represents the first publicly disclosed use of the Woburn, Mass.-based startup’s technology to solve a problem specific to high-penetration PV — reducing over-voltages caused by an excess of solar power, while also maintaining voltage levels when the sun isn’t shining.
GTM Research has predicted that the U.S. market for these devices will reach $320 million by 2017 for the business case of solar PV integration, which is a particularly challenging problem to solve using traditional utility grid equipment and control systems. With its Gridco deployment, HECO is breaking ground on that business proposition.
Over the past decade or so, Cincinnati-based Integral Analytics has quietly established itself in some of the leading grid-edge efforts underway in North America, with a suite of software tools that tackle both the real-time and the decades-ahead scope of distributed energy resource (DER) integration. Now the privately funded company’s approach is starting to bubble up into the regulatory framework of energy innovations in states like California.
IA’s IDROP (Integrating Distributed Resources into Optimal Portfolios) software takes on the task of establishing the real-time values of DERs for dispatch and control, and it is being used in projects like Duke Energy’s McAlpine substation smart grid test bed and the PowerShift Atlantic project in Canada’s Maritime provinces. Its LoadSEER (Load Spatial Electric Expansion and Risk) platform expands these DER value calculations into decades-ahead forecasts and planning constructs, and it is being used by California utilities including PG&E and SDG&E.
Integral Analytics has also coined the term “distributed marginal price,” or DMP, to refer to the grid-edge values its software platforms deliver. The idea of DMP is similar to the New York Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding’s LMP+D metric, referring to the locational marginal price values used by grid operators, only broken down to distribution-grid levels of granularity. California’s Distribution Resources Plan proceeding has seen the DMP concept brought forward by distributed energy advocates eager to see it incorporated into the state’s valuation of DERs as grid replacements.
Itron is North America’s biggest smart meter vendor, but it wants to be much more. In 2014, it staked its claim to the next generation of networked energy devices with thelaunch of its Riva platform. This IPv6-compliant, multi-communications-capable technology architecture, beefed up through a partnership with Cisco, was among the first from a major AMI vendor to embed Linux programmable processors in its endpoints, enabling its meters and communication devices to run applications that interact with a growing number of partner devices.
Since then, Itron Riva has integrated with smart inverters from Fronius, EV chargers from Clipper Creek, and a number of smart thermostats, water heaters, pool pumps and other behind-the-meter devices. Itron’s New Business Innovations team has been experimenting with other intelligent devices, such as smart streetlights and solar gateways, and its Riva Developers Community has opened up its underlying technology to partners around the globe.
Itron has also been expanding its extensive analytics capabilities to use in its new distributed computing environment. In October, CEO Philip Mezey set the second half of 2016 for the launch of OpenWay Riva, which will bring these new capabilities to the fore for utility customers. And that’s not counting the internet-of-things applications it’s looking for to expand its market beyond the utility.
Kansas City Power & Light and Innovari
Kansas City Power & Light’s Interactive Energy Platform deployment is the utility’s attempt to tap the power of edge-of-grid resources to reduce costs of grid upgrades and meeting peak loads with new generation resources. Working with demand-side management software vendor Innovari, the utility has implemented a platform to monitor and control customer building loads and other edge-of-grid resources both to solve system constraints isolated to individual feeders/substations, and to improve overall system utilization.
Innovari’s Interactive Energy Platform ties these multiple grid-edge systems into a generation-quality capacity asset with real-time, two-way verifiable, closed-loop control. That delivers performance akin to a peaker plant, but at half the cost and with none of the emissions.
New York Power Authority and Talisen Technologies
The New York Power Authority’s Energy Manager program may be the single biggest effort to integrate building-side energy management data with statewide energy goals. The energy monitoring operations center at SUNY Polytechnic Institute will provide comprehensive energy reporting for more than 3,000 public buildings, in order to help to meet the state’s BuildSmart NY goal to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent in state government facilities by 2020.
Talisen’s Enterprise Sustainability Platform serves as the underlying data collection, analysis and reporting analysis platform for the operations center. The St. Louis, Mo.-based company has deployed with its home city and state on similar building energy management and sustainability software deployments, and recently launched operations in Dubai.
NYPA’s operations center has a larger role to play in the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative, which envisions demand-side management becoming a commodity on future distribution system markets. The agency is already working with other cities in New York state, and intends to support effective measurement and verification tools for energy-efficiency projects and to support NYPA’s demand response programs.
We first met Ohmconnect in 2014, shortly after it unveiled its plans for turning home energy-saving alerts into grid revenues. Since then, the bootstrapped San Francisco-based startup has landed some big wins, capped off with the January news that it had won a bid to provide more than 7 megawatts of capacity to California’s Demand Response Auction Mechanism (DRAM) pilot.
Ohmconnect started out providing homeowners with smart meter energy data and usage alerts to encourage efficiency. But it has moved into the realm of getting lots of homes to reduce energy use quickly and reliably enough to meet the local demand-reduction needs of utilities and grid operators, and earn revenues as a result.
It’s also moved into the world of smart devices, including its work with smart EV-charger startup eMotorWerks, and a partnership with Schneider Electric that’s one of the first to deliver the grid giant’s Wiser line of smart thermostats and energy management devices outside of utility channels. The first big test of its combination of motivated energy-saving customers and demand-responsive devices will come this summer, when it will begin to deliver the megawatts’ worth of localized load reduction it has promised for the DRAM program.
California’s DRAM program has its antecedents in a series of pilot projects that have laid the groundwork for how grid edge-enabled DERs can play a role in utility and grid operations. It started with Pacific Gas & Electric’s Intermittent Renewable Management Pilot Phase 2 (IRM2) in 2014, and was followed the next year by PG&E’s Supply Side Pilot (SSP) — the first-ever opportunity for distributed, aggregated resources to bid themselves into the state’s wholesale power markets.
We’ve covered how companies such as Stem, Ohmconnect and Green Charge Networkshave taken advantage of these pilot programs. But the mastermind of these pilots is San Ramon, Calif.-based Olivine, the “scheduling coordinator” that manages the interaction of these third-party resources with programs run by the state’s grid operator, CAISO.
That’s put Olivine in the position of arbitrating the state’s initial moves from traditional centrally controlled, siloed demand response, into a new paradigm based on market signals and broad-based participation by distributed energy owners and aggregators. The DRAM pilot is the next step, but CEO Beth Reid has also told us that we should stay tuned for PG&E’s Excess Supply Pilot (XSP), which will for the first time pay end users who can absorb excess solar and wind energy, as well as turn down energy to reduce peak loads.
Oncor Microgrid Project with S&C Electric
What does the microgrid of the future look like? To answer that question, one could do worse than to travel to Lancaster, Texas to visit the state-of-the-art microgrid unveiled by Oncor there last summer. Working with S&C Electric, Schneider Electric, Tesla Energy and other parties, the Dallas-area utility has put together a self-powered island of stability for its on-site telecommunications center, as well as a test bed for integrating multiple distributed energy resources in ways that can also serve the grid’s larger needs.
The Oncor microgrid (PDF) has networked four different sites at its System Operating Services Facility, involving nine different distributed generation resources: two solar PV arrays, a microturbine, two energy storage units, and four generators. It’s capable of islanding and powering itself at a peak capacity of 900 kilowatts for two hours, or 550 kilowatts once its solar and battery power has fallen away.
Beyond the system’s real-world uses, Oncor wants to demonstrate how it could build, own and operate microgrids for its customers — something that utilities around the country want to do. Operating in Texas’ competitive energy market, Oncor has been rebuffed in its attempt to rate-base billions of dollars in grid battery investments. Perhaps microgrids-as-a-service are another way to bridge the utility-grid edge divide.
Hydro One Networks, one of Canada’s largest utilities, has been deploying a host of asset management and grid intelligence technologies to help it manage the growth of intermittent wind and solar power on its system and its Distributed Energy Management and Storage Network project is taking on the distribution side of this equation. Veridian Connections another large utility is also innovating with distributed energy resources in the form of two residential microgrid systems, including 10 kilowatts of solar, 14 kilowatt-hours of batteries, EV-charging systems, and the GridOS software platform developed by Opus One.
Opus One uses real-world electrical models and sophisticated power flow optimized state-estimation algorithms to help assess DER interconnection impacts, make real-time loss calculations, and enable the intelligent dispatch of energy storage and demand-responsive loads. The Ontario-based company’s software is also being used in an “integrated urban community energy” project in Toronto, single-site and community microgrids, and volt/VAR optimization systems.
With other North American utilities, it’s developing the information and intelligence to integrate data from various distribution automation devices, and develop and deploy applications that provide situational awareness of the electric system. Opus One is also engaged with utilities in New York that are focused on REV, the state’s plan to reform their energy vision.
Smarter Grid Solutions
The term “distributed energy resources management system,” or DERMS, gets thrown around a lot in the pages of Greentech Media. It’s used to refer to a wide variety of software platforms that network, monitor, manage and control DERs for various needs. Some approach the challenge of connecting DER-equipped customers with grid operators, while others are moving from utility control rooms and distribution grid management systems toward the edges.
Scottish startup Smarter Grid Solutions has carved out an important niche in the utility-centric approach to DERMS, with a software and hardware suite that enables real-time communication and orchestration of dispatchable assets. It’s being used by U.K. grid operators to help balance hundreds of megawatts of wind and solar energy and open the grid to more renewable power interconnections. On this side of the Atlantic, SGS’ software is being piloted by customers including New York utilityConsolidated Edison, Southeastern utility Southern Co., Ontario, Canada-based utilityPowerStream, and, reportedly, California utility PG&E.
Last summer, SGS landed a spot to test its software with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Department of Energy lab that’s orchestrating a broad array ofgrid-edge technology integration projects. These efforts, along with its inclusion in NYSEG and RG&E’s Flexible Interconnect Capacity Solution demonstration project under New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative, have won the company a place on our Grid Edge Awards list.
In the race to challenge Tesla’s Powerwall for dominance in the behind-the-meter battery market, Sonnen is seeking top-contender status. The startup formerly known as Sonnenbatterie has built up a significant presence in its home market of Germany, where thousands of homeowners have bought its batteries and home energy management systems. In February Sonnen announced the shipment of its 10,000th battery, providing a statistic that may or may not match Tesla’s Powerwall sales to date — Tesla isn’t revealing those figures.
Last year it announced its intentions to move into the U.S. market, starting with commercial applications in California and residential installations in Hawaii, with1,000 orders placed as of mid-December. In January it unveiled a partnership with PV manufacturer SolarWorld and roofing company PetersenDean, and announced plans to create an energy storage financing scheme with Spruce, the company formed by the merger of Clean Power Finance and Kilowatt Financial.
In the meantime, it’s been working on new models for aggregating its batteries for purposes beyond the customer meter, starting in Germany’s deregulated energy market. In November, it launched SonnenCommunity, a network of producers, consumers and storage operators that can trade self-generated renewable electricity with each other through a virtual grid.
It was about 25 years that Steffes released its first Electric Thermal Storage (ETS) space heating system that provided utilities with a behind the meter energy storage while delivering low cost heating to consumers. Over the next 20 years or so, the Dickinson, N.D.-based company has grown a sizable portfolio of grid-interactive thermal storage systems which includes both space and water heaters — and now, with utilities around the world searching for affordable behind-the-meter storage assets, that portfolio is coming into its own.
In 2014 Steffes launched the software side of its business, via its “dynamic dispatch” system that brings utility-grade telemetry and data analytics to the challenge of using thermal energy storage to help balance intermittent wind and solar energy for grid stability and reliability. The company claims some two dozen utility deployments, including Canada’s PowerShift Atlantic project and the Department of Energy-fundedPacific Northwest Demonstration Project.
Steffes is also working Hawaiian Electric’s Grid-Interactive Water Heater initiative, which is deploying smart water heaters with technology partner Shifted Energy. This project is trying out water heaters for far more than traditional demand response, with use cases including frequency regulation and contingency reserves to mitigate the sudden loss of generation capacity.
Pretty much every grid battery vendor likes to say that it’s trying to take on Tesla Energy — a testament to how the electric-vehicle maker’s entry into the energy storage market last year has made the world aware of the fact that there is such a thing as an energy storage market to begin with.
Tesla’s launch of its Powerwall systems for behind-the-meter uses and its Powerpack for utility-scale grid storage came with the promise of some eye-popping low prices, driven by the company’s ability to supply itself with batteries from its Gigafactory in Nevada. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has cited “pretty nutty” preorder figures for the company’s new storage system since the launch, with a long list of partners including AES Energy Storage, EnerNOC, Advanced Microgrid Solutions, Oncor, Southern California Edison, Austin Energy, Green Mountain Power, and of course, sister company SolarCity.
Tesla appears on target to meet its low price goals, according to a recent analysis. That will help it compete in the utility-scale energy storage marketplace, where Musk has suggested about 80 percent of the company’s battery business lies at present. Its behind-the-meter strategy is being bolstered by moves into markets like Germany, Australia and Hawaii, where the economics of solar-plus-storage are more attractive — and muddied a bit by last month’s news that it has quietly discontinued its larger 10-kilowatt-hour Powerwall battery.