Startup eMotorWerks, which makes software and hardware to turn EV chargers into networked nodes of a cloud-connected, grid services platform, has landed a big EV charging equipment maker to put its version of smart charging to the test at scale.
On Tuesday, the San Carlos, Calif.-based company announced it’s integrating its JuiceNet networking cards and cloud-connected control platform into AeroVironment’s line of consumer and OEM EV charging solutions. That OEM list includes the makers of the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Bolt, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and the Ford Focus and Energi plug-in EVs, as well as Kia, Fiat and Hyundai.
Over the coming months, new AeroVironment chargers bearing the JuiceBox logo will be arriving to market, providing lots of features for customers who buy them. Those include “smartphone, web and Amazon Alexa voice control over charging, real-time and historic energy usage for cars, notifications of charging status, load-balancing for two or more [EV charging devices] on the same electrical circuit to share the load while avoiding tripping breakers, and setting charging schedules that correspond to lower utility rates, saving customers money on charging.”
As for the utility and grid services side, eMotorWerks offers integration via open APIs and industry standards like OpenADR to aggregate fleets of charging EVs. That could allow utilities to “modulate energy demand on the grid, and to shift and spread out EV charging loads to times when renewable resources are more abundant or energy rates are lower.”
AeroVironment is a publicly traded maker of unmanned aircraft (i.e., drones) and one of the country’s leading providers of EV charging equipment, with more than 45,000 Level 2 chargers deployed as of January. It’s also a supplier of equipment for a number of public charging networks, such as the EVgo network that NRG built out in California and Texas, and then sold to a private investment firm last year.
EMotorWerks itself has about 16,000 EV chargers in its network, the vast majority of them in the United States, and more than half of them in California, Val Miftakhov, the company’s founder and CEO, said in a Tuesday interview. It got started as an EV charging systems maker via contract manufacturing. But in the past several years, it’s been shifting its focus to providing the underlying technology platform to other charging vendors, automakers, or other potential users of its grid services, he said.
“AeroVironment is a very strong player, with strong market share, and relationships with all the automakers,” he said. “For us, this will be a real improvement on how much share of the load we now have access to. Theoretically, in the span of nine to 12 months, we will see thousands and thousands of JuiceNet-branded AeroVironment chargers in the field.”
This is the second big manufacturing partnership for eMotorWerks, which has also been working with Clipper Creek since late 2015. The AeroVironment partnership got started about a year ago, Miftakhov said, adding, “By now, we’ve run through a number of versions of the hardware, software and firmware revisions. We’re actually a pretty baked product or combination of products.”
That’s an important feature for eMotorWerks, which much prefers to have a piece of its own hardware inside the chargers it works with. “A more vertically integrated platform has more control over the user experience,” he said. “It delivers better service to the consumers, and a better product and platform to the manufacturers -- especially in the early stages of the market, when there are no real standards for integration of these two components.”
“On our side, we’ve built a custom version of our JuiceCard, as we call it -- the hardware components that actually manage the connectivity and control that’s embedded into the AeroVironment system,” he said. Those JuiceCards collect data and carry out certain tasks autonomously. But they also have a wireless connection to the internet, and to eMotorWerks’ cloud computing platform, which provides real-time data collection and control for each charger.
Importantly, the startup’s platform manages both the customer interaction, with attention to each EV owner’s charging preferences and needs, and the grid-side integration, with forecasting to optimize an ever-shifting resource that can add up to hundreds of kilowatts, or even megawatts, of real-time flexible load.
California has been eMotorWerks’ primary test bed for proving out its abilities on this front. The startup is a participant in California’s Demand Response Auction Mechanism (DRAM) pilot, which has opened the state’s grid markets to more than 100 megawatts of aggregated distributed energy resources such as batteries, demand response, and plug-in electric vehicles since it launched last year. The state's big investor-owned utilities are rolling out EV charging pilots that could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars of support for the industry.
AeroVironment and eMotorWerks haven’t released any details on where they might be testing the grid services potential of their combined systems. Nor have they disclosed any financial details on the transaction, although Miftakhov did briefly describe how the two companies were valuing each other in the partnership: “We’re using our respective channels to promote the product, and there are revenue streams attached to those products. Some are simple product placement revenue streams, some of them are more complex, based on energy services.”
The country’s biggest standalone EV charging network provider is ChargePoint, the decade-old startup that’s built up a fleet of more than 33,260 charging spots across the country. ChargePoint could be seen as a competitor to eMotorWerks, or as a potential partner, Miftakhov noted, given the overlapping nature of many EV charger deployments -- Nissan has provided public charging from ChargePoint and AeroVironment systems, for example.
On the branding front, JuiceBox has been getting a good deal of attention relative to its size, which could be of value to AeroVironment, which isn’t exactly a household name. The general review of the company is that it makes “a high-quality product, with pricing that has been a little bit high of late,” compared to some of the products coming onto the market, he said.
JuiceBox got good grades on its review at Greentech Media (“Probably the best options in terms of power and features for the price”), while AeroVironment’s review was in the mixed category (“Expensive, but a good warranty”).
EMotorWerks also offers green-friendly customer options, like setting EV chargers to charge during hours when renewable energy makes up the greatest portion of their local grid’s power mix, and avoiding hours with high carbon emissions profiles. In California, these hours also tend to be when state grid operator CAISO is facing the need to curtail excess renewable energy on the grid, which could create value for EVs that can be programmed to start sucking up that excess power to avoid curtailment.
The AeroVironment partnership isn’t an exclusive one. Miftakhov said that eMotorWerks is expecting to announce “a couple of different integrations in April with other manufacturers of charging systems,” though he wouldn’t say which ones.