Why do batteries for the grid cost so much more, on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, than batteries for laptops, or even for electric vehicles? It’s not the cost of the battery technologies themselves, or even necessarily what grid customers are demanding from them.
Instead, it’s that today’s grid-scale battery projects are almost all designed, built and operated as standalone projects, with mostly proprietary and sometimes single-source technologies. If automakers and computer companies tried to build products that way, they’d go out of business. What’s more, the mass market for reliable, standardized, battery-powered laptops would have never developed (the jury is still out on the mass market for EVs).
David Kaplan, CEO of Seattle-based startup 1Energy, believes that software can unlock the same kind of scale and interoperability opportunities for grid-scale batteries -- at least, in terms that battery makers and their utility customers can relate to.
“We envision a future when there are various storage sockets, if you will...and battery manufacturers can sell energy storage in the same way a transformer manufacturer would sell catalog products to the utility today,” Kaplan said at Wednesday’s Electricity Storage Association (ESA) annual conference in Santa Clara, Calif.
Founded in 2011, the internally funded startup signed up public utility Snohomish PUD as a test customer last year, along with French grid giant Alstom. This week, it added inverter maker Parker-Hannifin to its list of partners. The project underway isn’t that big -- it consists of one substation, with a set of batteries from yet-to-be announced suppliers, aimed at providing an eventual 1 megawatt of storage.
But underlying it is a software platform designed to add five, ten, or twenty more substations, or to add new batteries to each in different combinations, as the need arises, Kaplan said. 1Energy will provide software and system engineering to the project, as well as lead selection of future partners for batteries, inverters and other components. While 1Energy’s list of battery and power systems partners is still small today, the firm is in talks with different vendors, as well as participating in the various standards bodies (IEEE, IEC, etc.) involved, he said.
As for creating the interconnections between these future standardized storage systems, utility SCADA systems and back-office platforms, and to third parties like energy traders and demand response aggregators, “There’s room for a software supplier to tie it all together,” Kaplan said.
A former Microsoft software developer who helped build SQL Server, Access, and the company's internet services platform, Kaplan brings an interesting perspective to the grid-battery nexus. In 2006, he started V2Green, which built software to manage the charging and discharging of EV batteries based on power pricing, owner preferences and grid requirements. V2Green tested its software with partners like Seattle City Light and Xcel Energy before it was acquired in 2008 by GridPoint, the well-funded startup that has since bought several other startups, only to let their technology languish without any visible growth.
While his relationship with GridPoint ended in a lawsuit, the acquisition did give Kaplan the financial wherewithal to pursue other green interests for a while, Kaplan told me Wednesday. That included spending time working as a grid technologist for Snohomish PUD, where he turned his attention to the battery-grid connection.
That work led to 1Energy, as well as the idea for its Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA), which is being tested in the Snohomish PUD project. In simple terms, MESA installs software at each energy storage endpoint, integrates with utility grid operations systems such as SCADA and DMS, and manages the combination of the two via a cloud-based platform, he said.
At the energy storage endpoint, MESA collects voltage, current, temperature and other standard data from the battery, inverter and other components, he said. But the architecture should also allow extensibility and customization, to give “any vendor the ability to sell value-added portions of the interface that are unique to their equipment,” he said.
On the utility side, MESA incorporates all the different energy storage endpoints into a series of operating modes, such as load firming, peak shaving, load following, economic dispatch and the like, he said. Again, the underlying architecture is meant to support upgrades and customization for individual utilities, he said.
“One of the key things you want is the notion of an energy brick,” Kaplan noted -- a generic energy storage unit (ESU) that, regardless of its internal chemistry or operating characteristics, presents itself to the utility as a clear set of capabilities, costs, tradeoffs, probabilities and the like. Storage systems are just one of many means utilities have to choose from to solve various problems, he noted.
Getting to that point is a complicated affair, however. “You need a series of defined interfaces that are specific to the ESU, or energy brick, specific to the power conversion components, and ancillary services that can talk to other automation points in the system,” he said. “These interfaces need to address the physical, electric, and communications capacities of connecting these various components.”Software for Grid Storage Heats Up
1Energy isn’t the first to target the software side of grid storage, of course. To start with, every modern battery and inverter comes with its own software on board, which utilities can tap for supervision and control. Battery makers like A123, General Electric, Johnson Controls, Saft, LG, Panasonic, NGK, Samsung, Xtreme Power and others have built from there to add more sophisticated interfaces and controls aimed at meeting grid needs. In fact, startup Xtreme Power is selling off its battery factory in hopes of making battery management software its specialty.
Grid giants like GE, Siemens, S&C, ABB and Schneider Electric are all involved in battery energy storage, though they’re coming at it from different angles, and working with different partners -- GE is using Xtreme’s software to support its Durathon sodium-metal batteries, for example. Other players in the space include BYD, the Chinese automaker and solar panel manufacturer, which has also built one of the world’s biggest battery storage projects in China.
Many of these projects could support a more modular approach to energy storage. Greensmith is providing its battery-agnostic energy storage management software for utilities including San Diego Gas & Electric, Hawaii Electric and Southern Co., to name one example, and S&C Electric has built an energy storage product line, built around other vendors’ batteries, that scales from cargo-container-sized utility substation units to refrigerator-sized community energy storage units.
Software also helps tie energy storage into the IT platforms that run the grid’s energy markets. AES Energy Storage, which has deployed 120 megawatts of grid battery-based storage projects around the world, recently unveiled its internal Storage Operating System (sOS) software that includes market modules that match batteries to the specific programs and economic incentives available across Texas, New York, New England and the mid-Atlantic region. (AES said that it built its own software because it couldn’t find what it wanted in the marketplace.)
Grid-scale storage can also be building-scale storage, by the way. We’ve got a host of startups (Stem and GELI are two notable ones) working on software to optimize on-site energy storage systems to avoid peak demand charges, meet demand response calls, or keep the lights on during emergencies -- or, perhaps, all three at different times. Linking batteries with rooftop solar panels is also a growing trend.
Just how a startup like 1Energy fits into this equation is hard to predict. Certainly it has set its sights on a lofty goal. As Dan Rastler of the Electric Power Research Institute noted in a Q&A after Kaplan’s presentation, the industry as a whole is slowly moving from proprietary to standards-based technologies, leaving 1Energy with the challenge of scaling to meet that growth.
“I think the biggest [challenge] we see is that nobody’s tried it before,” Kaplan said in response. The Snohomish PUD project is set to start next year, and represents the first chance for the company to test the software’s capabilities, leaving it very early indeed in the race to become the operating system of grid energy storage everywhere. At the same time, the industry has been talking about this problem for years, so maybe 1Energy is right on time.