It’s the first day of the big DistribuTech conference in San Diego. Grid giants and startups are unveiling their latest products aimed at connecting utilities with the grid edge.

Let’s start with Enbala, the Vancouver, Canada-based startup that has deployed its software platform to turn industrial energy loads like pumps and refrigerators into megawatts' worth of fast-responding grid assets. On Tuesday, it announced its biggest partner yet: Swiss grid giant ABB, which has tapped Enbala’s Symphony software platform as part of a new, jointly developed distributed energy resource management system (DERMS).

The term "DERMS" applies to software that can integrate the needs of utility grid operators with the capabilities of flexible demand-side energy resources at the edges of the grid. DERMS platforms come in all shapes and sizes, from grid giants like Siemens and General Electric, to startups like Advanced Microgrid SolutionsBlue Pillar, AutoGrid, Opus One, Power Analytics, Spirae, Smarter Grid Solutions, and the recently acquired Viridity Energy.

But for the most part, they’ve typically been organized in two different ways -- top-down extensions of utility or grid operator controls out to customer endpoints, or bottom-up aggregations of customer loads into grid energy markets. Enbala and ABB’s combo DERMS platform intends to erase this distinction, Enbala CEO Bud Vos said.

Bridging the utility-customer energy divide with data and controls

On the utility side, ABB brings a well-known set of tools, like its advanced distribution management software (ADMS) with its “single network model” and “unified geospatial control center operator environment." These are tools used by utility operators to monitor and respond to changes on their distribution grids. “Our platform is an extension of the ADMS platform, and tightly integrated with that ADMS framework,” Vos said. ”It provides cohesiveness, from an operational standpoint and from a data standpoint.”

Enbala, in turn, brings a software platform that can tap into hundreds of individual loads per customer, collect and analyze their data, and then start to subtly shift their energy-use patterns in effective and profitable ways. Sometimes that means moving big water-pumping schedules to times of the day when electricity isn’t in high demand. Other times it involves turning thousands of water heaters and refrigerators on and off in response to 4-second signals to help balance grid frequencies.

So far, Enbala has been aggregating responsive energy loads on behalf of its customers in frequency regulation markets run by mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM and Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator. As one of several partners in the PowerShift Atlantic project, it has also used its software platform, managed by employees at its network operations center, to help control customer loads to firm wind power for Canadian utility NB Power.

In the past year or so, Enbala has been getting more into the distribution grid side of things. At last year’s DistribuTech, the company was demonstrating pilot projects in Hawaii using rooftop PV solar inverters, and a project in Southern California modeling big industrial and commercial loads’ potential to help balance grid disruptions.

“We think we’re going to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of connected energy deices coming to market,” Vos said. “You’ve got to be able to optimize millions of assets in seconds, or even sub-second timescales, and with accuracy, to know that power is moving to the right places at the right time.”

Enbala has also kicked its computing capabilities up a notch with its latest rollout, he said. “Under the covers of this release, we’ve updated our learning algorithms and optimization algorithms,” he said. It is using a software language called Erlang, originally built for the telecommunications industry, that can run millions of simultaneous transactions at a speed that allows for real-time decision making.

The expanding DERMS landscape: Siemens, ABB, General Electric

It’s hard to define the DERMS competitive landscape, since it’s such a new field. But GTM Research predicts that the North American DERMS market will reach $110 million by 2021, as today’s pilot projects start to become operationalized at utilities in states with lots of distributed energy to handle, like Hawaii and California. And ABB isn’t the only grid giant trying to colonize the DERMS space.

Take Siemens, which launched its own DERMS product at DistribuTech on Tuesday, complete with “tools that provide data and visibility across the energy system, from distribution grid planning to market forecasting.”

The new DERMS platform is built on Siemens’ work on microgrids, a big focus of the company's efforts at DistribuTech conferences over the past few years. This work includes partnerships with startup Utilidata, as well as adaptations of the company’s Spectrum 7 control software into local grid applications.

To date, Siemens has rolled out these capabilities in microgrid projects with universities and government partners, such as the Department of Energy-funded microgrid project with Case Western Reserve University and NASA. But it’s also linking those microgrids to utility systems, said Mike Carlson, president of Siemens Smart Grid North America, in an interview.

On the data side, Siemens released an integrated application for its EnergyIP software on Tuesday, combining distributed energy management, virtual power plant capabilities and demand response on one platform. EnergyIP, built on the software of Siemens acquisition eMeter, “is architected for a true real-time, cloud-based IOT system,” Carlson said, capable of giving grid operators second-by-second control and analysis capabilities.

“What we built is very modular, or scalable, or agile, components that you can bolt onto existing capabilities, and scale them based on size, or capability,” he said.

The costs for standing up a microgrid range from the low six figures for simpler applications, up to the millions of dollars to enable sub-second monitoring required for certain grid applications, he said. But that’s “about half the cost of a traditional enterprise deployment,” since it has already combined all the requisite pieces of the microgrid puzzle.  

General Electric, which has invested in Enbala through GE Energy Ventures, has also been promising a DERMS offering, built on the work it’s been doing with Duke Energy’s Coalition of the Willing, and the Nice Grid project in southern France. GE has also been working with Enbala on a project under the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E NODES program.

Vos noted that Enbala’s work with ABB is a non-exclusive partnership, freeing it to work with multiple partners. Right now the company has six projects, including two contracts for virtual power plants and two regulated utility DERMS contracts that are focused on optimization of distribution feeders.

Make sure to attend Greentech Media’s Grid Edge World Forum 2017, our premier conference and exhibition focused exclusively on tomorrow’s distributed energy system. Join us to discuss and debate the latest issues impacting tomorrow’s distributed energy system, and examine the trends and innovation happening at the grid edge. Learn more here.