French energy company Engie has taken a majority stake in tiko, a Swiss startup with technology that’s aggregating household and business loads into some of Europe’s biggest virtual power plants. 

Tiko, a 2012 joint venture of Swisscom and Repower, has grown from piloting its technology in Swiss homes to enabling a fleet of residential, commercial and industrial assets adding up to more than 100 megawatts of load across Switzerland, Germany, France and Austria. 

But while it directly operates its original 6,500-home, 40-megawatt project in Switzerland as Swisscom Energy Solutions, it’s also white-labeling its technology to match real-time distributed energy resource (DER) controls to real-time grid commands, Sandra Trittin, co-founder and business development director, wrote in a Thursday email. 

In particular, tiko’s devices, installed at the home or business and connected via cellular or broadband to its grid control platform, are able to control DERs quickly and reliably enough to meet grid operators’ second-by-second frequency regulation needs. 

Some of tiko’s white-label partners are well-known solar-storage providers, such as sonnen, the solar-storage startup acquired by Shell last month. In fact, the company’s first “SonnenFlat” offering, which aimed at zeroing out solar-storage customers’ utility bills through a combination of maximizing self-consumption and tapping the aggregated value of hundreds of customers as frequency regulation assets, is orchestrated by tiko’s technology.  

An array of services

About 10 megawatts of the aggregate load using tiko’s technology consists of residential solar-battery systems — such as the “energy cloud” offering from sonnen and German utility EWE, or Austrian utility EVN’s “Joulie” program — to increase household self-consumption of solar, Trittin wrote. 

But the majority are tapping loads that, while they might not be able to store energy for hours at a time, can certainly be turned on and off to meet frequency regulation needs, at least for the five to 15 minutes at a time typical for these types of grid services. 

Trittin noted as one example the 2017 partnership with French utility Direct Energie, which is using tiko’s technology to offer special tariffs to households willing to turn over their electric heaters to this form of grid service. Direct Energie is also tapping heating, cooling and pumping loads in the commercial and industrial sector. Other loads that have integrated tiko’s technology include EV chargers and hydropower turbines, she wrote. 

Over the lifetime of these various operating assets, “the availability of the virtual power plant is 99.9 percent and participation rate in events is almost 100 percent,” she wrote. The company’s technology has been certified by the transmission system operators in France, Germany and Switzerland — a big hurdle for would-be market entrants. 

At the same time, tiko’s software is also optimizing on-site loads and generation to serve a variety of customer needs, such as maximizing self-consumption, demonstrating its versatility, Trittin wrote. The company has integrated a host of household energy control and optimization capabilities into its devices, which can be installed and turned on in about 30 minutes, or 10 minutes if pre-integrated with the DERs they’re controlling, she wrote. 

“Besides DERs, everything with a somehow significant load can be connected and utilized for different kind of services,” she wrote. That could mean self-consumption optimization at the home or business, distribution grid stabilization or microgrid optimization at the campus or community level, or wholesale optimization or frequency regulation at the grid operator level — or a combination of all three. 

A dispatchable resource you can count on

Elta Kolo, grid edge analyst for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, noted that tiko’s combination of a proven platform for controlling tens of thousands of DERs in real time, and its integration with some of Europe’s leading solar/storage/smart home deployments to date, sets it apart from much of the competition. 

“Essentially, they’re creating a dispatchable resource that you can count on,” she said. Tens of millions of residential customers are enrolled in demand response programs using smart thermostats that can respond to various utility commands or price signals, but these are much blunter instruments for grid operators, and certainly can’t respond within seconds, or confirm how much load they’ve dropped. 

The lack of a real-time, reliable link has limited the range of services that can be asked for from the typical household loads, Kolo noted. For example, electric water heaters have long been used as a demand response resource, largely by preheating them so that they can be turned off during times of peak grid demand. The technology to allow them to be turned on and off rapidly for frequency regulation services has been piloted by utilities, but not yet deployed en masse. 

The same issues arise in terms of controlling solar inverters, behind-the-meter batteries, and other DERs that number in the thousands, she noted. Large-scale residential solar-storage VPPs being developed by utilities like Vermont’s Green Mountain Power and Australia’s AGL are starting with load-shifting, self-consumption and other functions that don’t require second-by-second response times.

In that light, “I feel like the fact that they’ve been able to work with sonnen, and have had that experience working with storage, is important,” Kolo said of tiko. “With sonnen, it’s not on a pilot basis.” 

Engie and tiko eye the U.S. market

Engie, like many of its European counterparts, has been on shopping spree for companies serving the new market opportunities for distributed energy. This includes a big push into North American C&I markets, with its purchase and rebranding of Green Charge Networks, OpTerra Energy Services and Ecova, as well as significant investment in off-grid opportunities in Africa, India and South America, including its acquisition of Fenix International last year. 

But while Engie has more than 12 million energy customers across 70 countries, it “doesn’t have activity on the residential side, so I think this opens up a market they haven’t had much experience with,” Kolo said. “And it allows them to bring that over to the U.S. market. I feel like, for the capability they have, there’s little competition in the U.S.” 

Trittin confirmed that tiko and Engie are seeking opportunities in the U.S. market, as well as in the solar-storage hotbed of Australia, although she declined to discuss details of where the companies are planning to roll out the technology next. Swisscom and Repower have retained stakes in the company, and tiko will continue to offer its technology and services independently and keep running its Swiss VPP, she wrote. 

As for Engie’s plans for tiko, Yves Le Gélard, chief digital officer of Engie Group, noted in last week’s announcement that it “will enable us to create new services for our residential customers and move toward the building of decentralized energy communities.” 

And, in a noteworthy statement from a company that’s been as acquisitive as Engie has been over the past few years, he added that tiko’s technology “effectively completes our portfolios of load-balancing and storage solutions, which are so crucial to the achievement of the energy transition.”