EDF Renewables has acquired PowerFlex Systems, a California startup with technology to manage one of the biggest challenges for scaling up electric vehicle charging: controlling the loads that lots of EVs charging at once can place on the power infrastructure of the sites hosting the chargers.
Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. PowerFlex, a startup launched from the Netlab incubator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has received grants from parties including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the California Energy Commission’s CalSeed program and utility Southern California Edison.
PowerFlex’s patented technology has been tested by NREL and is operating EV charging stations at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the Los Altos School District in California and NREL’s National Wind Technology Center in Colorado, among other sites.
CEO George Lee said PowerFlex is particularly focused on helping California meet its aggressive goals of getting 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 by ensuring that the 5 million EVs on the road by then can charge to absorb daytime solar power and reduce loads during the peak hours of California's “duck curve.”
PowerFlex’s primary sales pitch to EV charging hosts is its ability to integrate those charging cycles with the electrical operations of the buildings they’re connected to, as well as the grids that serve them power, to reduce overall costs and constraints. These usually come in two forms: upfront costs to upgrade electrical infrastructure to provide for increased loads, as well as the risk of being hit with expensive demand charges if their entire electric usage exceeds certain thresholds at any time during the month.
Many EV charging systems can be programmed to avoid exceeding limits on site infrastructure or demand charges, whether by limiting the number of vehicles charging at once, or by managing their rate of charge. But PowerFlex also plugs into building electrical loads such as lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, as well as solar panels, batteries and other distributed energy technologies.
That allows for a much more fine-tuned approach to managing total site loads, which is important for preventing the spikes that can cause demand charges. But it also provides the opportunity to view the building and EV charging as a whole, whether to enable more chargers than the site could otherwise accommodate or to manage charging alongside on-site solar, energy storage or flexible loads.
European acquisition spree
EDF is one of several European energy companies and multinational utilities investing heavily in distributed energy technologies. It launched a new Distributed Energy and Storage business unit in the U.S. in 2017, building on its 2016 acquisition of groSolar, and last year took a 50 percent stake in EnterSolar, a San Diego-based commercial and industrial solar developer.
EDF’s big European competitors have also been acquiring EV technologies and portfolios. Italian utility Enel bought California-based startup eMotorWerks in 2017 and mobilized its first fleet of EV chargers to participate in the state’s energy markets last year. French energy and water giant Engie bought Dutch startup EV-Box in the same year, gaining access to more than 48,000 charging stations in 26 countries.
Oil major Royal Dutch Shell has also been on an EV acquisition streak, as it positions itself for a future in "electric mobility." In 2017 it bought Dutch company NewMotion and its 30,000 charging stations throughout Western Europe. In 2018 it led a $31 million investment in Ample, a stealthy EV charging startup. And early this year, it acquired Greenlots, a major U.S. EV charging network provider.
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