Keeping batteries and solar panels operating at maximum efficiency takes software smarts, and we’ve seen a lot of technology developments around both fields. Now we’ve got a startup that says it can handle both tasks, with tests underway and plans for commercial products out by late this year.
Spider9 is developing patent-pending intellectual property from the University of Michigan, so far via private financing, Glynne Townsend, founder and CEO, told me in an April interview. The Northville, Mich.-based startup is also in the midst of closing an undisclosed funding round in the millions of dollars range.
The money is aimed at proving out Spider9’s ability to “manage, not monitor” the performance of batteries at the individual cell level -- a technical challenge that’s the focus of a lot of private and government funding at present. As a former executive at lithium-ion battery market A123, Townsend has plenty of experience in the battery management system (BMS) field, and “frankly, most of these systems, all they do is monitor,” he said.
Automotive or grid-storage batteries contain hundreds or thousands of electrochemical cells that interact in hard-to-predict ways. Most of today’s BMS systems tend to be limited to “pack-down” operations to shut down packs that temperature or voltage monitors show to have a problem, Townsend said.
Spider9, on the other hand, can isolate and reconfigure a battery pack on the fly, using “IP about how you isolate a switch without on-loading the contacts, and then re-switch the load point on,” he said.
The Department of Energy has highlighted such battery management issues as a special focus, opening up requests for technology to monitor and manage battery cells in a more finely tuned manner. Startups such as Sendyne and Qnovo are promising technical solutions to various aspects of the challenge.
Spider9 has its first demonstration project in test labs right now, with a control system connected to lithium-ion batteries from an unnamed manufacturer interested in validating the technology, Townsend told me. It’s aiming at grid-scale batteries rather than automotive batteries, which could also put it in competition -- or cooperation -- with systems from the likes of A123, Xtreme Power, Saft, Johnson Controls, Coda Automotive, BYD Motors, and Greensmith Energy Management Systems.
In the meantime, the startup is also trying out its technology for solar panel optimization, he said. Spider9’s technology should be able to reconfigure panel strings to do such things as isolate sets of panels that are being shaded by passing clouds, or to configure solar panels that are receiving the first rays of the morning sun to bring the entire solar field up to power earlier in the day, Townsend added.
The startup will be competing with panel optimizer firms like Tigo and SolarEdge, microinverters from leader Enphase and challengers like Enecsys, and integrated AC module electronics from SolarBridge and ArrayPower, all in a market that is seeking to prove its worth to the utility-scale solar community.
Spider9 plans to have an 85-kilowatt test field up and running in Northfield, Mich. by June to test the prospect, he said. While it’s hard to make predictions on the efficiencies to be gained by such active management, the startup is aiming at the 20-percent range, he said.
As for bringing its technology to market, Spider9 hopes to have products available by the fourth quarter of 2012, and is considering both licensing its technology or setting it up as a managed system, Townsend said. Consider it an early entrant to two fields that are seeing a lot of VC cash chasing an as-yet unrealized promise of enhanced efficiency.