When hurricanes tore through the Caribbean earlier this fall, the team at Austin, Texas-based Ideal Power was finalizing a solar-plus-storage microgrid project in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Those hurricanes came through and stripped the PV panels right off the roof,” said Mike Barron, Ideal’s senior firmware design engineer. “It was going to be kind of a showcase for us.”
The project, which includes six of Ideal’s conversion units, now likely won’t be on-line for several weeks. In the meantime, the converters are increasing efficiency of some generators on the island by allowing them to run at full capacity and store extra power that’s not immediately used.
The installation in St. Croix was meant to take advantage of Ideal Power’s proprietary power packet switching architecture (PPSA), a power conversion technology that reduces the cost, size and weight of its converters. Ideal’s cost and efficiency gains over other inverter companies, crystallized in its PPSA, has been the company’s selling point. “That’s really the basis for most of what we do,” said Barron.
The company has built up a line of two 30-kilowatt and one 125-kilowatt power conversions systems, some of which are multiport. Ideal’s power conversion systems don’t use traditional isolation transformer architecture, thus eliminating the copper wire that creates their heavy core and increasing efficiency through a high-frequency switching system. Ideal’s systems weigh 500 pounds less than a traditional 30-kilowatt converter unit.
Ideal first arrived on the scene in 2007. Back then, Barron said the company was doing a lot of work with Lockheed Martin on military contracts. As energy storage blossomed, the company focused on battery-based microgrids and commercial systems, with the help of a $1 million Texas Emergency Technology Fund grant. It became the first grantee to launch an initial public offering.
Ideal has received or applied for 80 patents over the last decade, many of which are displayed as golden plaques on a wall that stretches the length of its office.
One pending patent, for example, centers on anti-islanding technology that makes it safer for an isolated resource, like a microgrid connected-PV system, to connect back to the grid.
Earlier this month, investors worried about threats to this wealth of intellectual property after the company fired its founder and chief technologist, Bill Alexander, over financial ethics violations. But the wall of patents will stay put; Ideal retains ownership despite the departure.
Ideal’s stock plummeted after the firing, but is now recovering.
Ideal's lab space sits behind a set of double doors in a generic-looking office space -- “cubicle land,” as Lee Chantel Sarver, Ideal’s customer experience coordinator, called it -- which was the literal set for the 1999 movie Office Space.
The lab has a grid simulator where the company can reproduce an AC grid brownout or test different load conditions. The room is full of devices: electric-vehicle batteries, a PV simulator capable of imitating different lighting patterns, a variety of motors, and a complete thermal chamber used for temperature extremes between -40 and 80 degrees C. These allow the company to do a good deal of its own UL testing.
Barron showed off the stockpile of gizmos with pride. All of that equipment has come at a cost, however.
In 2015 and 2016, the company spent over $5 million on research and development. In 2016, the company’s revenues declined 62 percent and gross profits fell by $300,000 due to lower product sales. Some are questioning whether Ideal can deliver on the hype surrounding its products. Will it finally emerge from R&D mode after a decade of operation?
Back in the lab, though, the excitement was palpable. The lab's showpiece is a microgrid simulation that demonstrates how Ideal's conversion units interact with different types of equipment and power fluctuations while islanded from the grid.
“Switch!” Barron yelled, before flipping off the connection to the grid. Barron cut three units running at 19,000 volts each with a synchronized start. The black monitors immediately showed them splitting load. Minutes later, he turned one unit off.
“As soon as I shut down that guy, these two immediately just distributed the load and picked up the slack. The lights don’t flicker or anything else. Any equipment that would have been on this microgrid would not have noticed,” said Barron pointing to the plots blinking on his monitor. “In terms of reliability and robustness, that’s a big step forward.”
Barron turned toward the screen measuring voltage and watts. “Most of the engineers who come in here that are really fascinated with microgrid technology, they’ve got us pulling up these scope traces and they’re having us look down into the minutiae right at the point of switchover. Their jaws drop at how smoothly it happens,” he said.
“I just kind of like being able to flip the switch and go, 'The lights stay on, guys,” he added with a guffawing laugh.
Ideal wants its converters to be the building block for distributed energy applications, through partnerships with software companies and system integrators like Sharp, NEXTracker and JLM Energy. According to a September GTM Research report on the energy storage inverter landscape, partnerships “will be critical to standardizing system components.”
Last year, JLM placed a 4-megawatt order for Ideal’s 30-kilowatt and 125-kilowatt systems. In 2014, Ideal secured a multi-year contract to work with Sharp on its SmartStorage system. Ideal is running a multimillion-dollar backlog that is "highly concentrated with a limited number of customers," according to the company's financials.
Ideal is also investigating partnerships in more remote locations. Barron said the company has ideas on how to build a more robust grid using its converter technology. “I think we’re going to probably start to see opportunities to partner with other groups that are looking to do things more globally,” said Barron. “Isolated villages where you don’t want to try to string power lines out to them, remote islands -- those types of areas.”
A global expansion may be a tall order, since Ideal is still running at a loss a decade into its founding. But disasters like the one in Puerto Rico demonstrate an acute need for fast-responding distributed energy resources.
“One of the keys to me, that I’m seeing and hearing about, is the idea that people want to have more of a building-block granularity to their power infrastructure,” said Barron. "With these hurricanes that went through the Caribbean, people are really starting to think more about that and these backup capabilities, especially for critical load support. [...] That discussion really seems to be changing.”