TimberRock Energy, a Maryland-based startup, won a $500,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration to deploy a small fleet of distributed energy resources to provide ancillary services in PJM.

For the past few years, Maryland has had ambitions to be a U.S. leader in microgrids. The state currently sits behind California in terms of installed microgrid capacity.

Unlike other states that are funding microgrids through green banks or state competitions, Maryland is looking to prod the industry along through grants to work within the structure of the current regulatory system. It has the benefit of being within the PJM wholesale market territory, which has arguably the most sophisticated ancillary services market in the U.S.

TimberRock is happy to play within the existing confines of utility regulation in Maryland and the larger PJM territory. The company has an ongoing series of projects with General Motors.

Beginning in mid-2016, it will deploy at least four sites as part of its pilot leveraging the state grant money, which was awarded to TimberRock and four other winners for novel demand response and building controls projects.

“We built a hardware and software platform for distributed energy resources to be connected and dispatchable,” said Brent Hollenbeck, CEO of TimberRock. “Sometimes they’re in full-blown microgrids, sometimes they’re not.”

A microgrid built to set sail

Hollenbeck and much of the team at TimberRock used to work for Airpax, a manufacturer of electrical controls, sensors and circuit breakers. Before that company was sold in 2009 to Sensata, Airpax purchased ED&D, a Florida company that developed marine microgrids capable of making adjustments based on whether ships were connected to shore power or out at sea.

The core of TimberRock’s business is its distributed energy management aggregation platform, or DE-MAP, which is a combination of the expertise from ED&D and the engineers at Airpax.

“We had a sense that we wanted to take this out of a niche application and reconfigure it to go after the new opportunities on the grid edge,” said Hollenbeck.

DE-MAP brings together data from disparate sources and combines it in a common messaging bus. The software uses Esper, a complex event-processing technology that can handle streams of big data with low latency. These types of technologies are used in financial trading and other industries.

It’s not just about handling big data, says Hollenbeck, but also quickly processing data to play in energy markets. For now, the projects TimberRock works on do not require the full heft of the technology behind the software, but as assets multiply into tens or hundreds of thousands, they will.

“We built a Ferrari even though we only need a Ford Taurus today,” said Hollenbeck.

On the hardware side, TimberRock relied on its experience from Airpax. “A decade ago, we were doing very sophisticated hardware,” said Hollenbeck. “We learned that there are certain touch points you need.”

TimberRock developed a remote terminal unit that costs less than $100, but still provides much of the sophistication and security capability of an RTU in a substation, said Hollenbeck.

Along with the RTU, TimberRock also deploys a site controller that creates an onsite Wi-Fi network that connects back to the cloud and can also integrate with other demand-side resources on a site, whether an LED network or building management system.

Bringing it all together for GM

Before TimberRock received the grant money to move forward with the fleet of microgrids, it had been working on a series of projects with General Motors.

TimberRock is controlling four Chevy Volts when they’re plugged in, along with a 600-kilowatt solar PV array, stationary lithium-ion batteries, bidirectional inverters and controllable lights. The next project will also include some HVAC integration. 

TimberRock leveraged OnStar’s application program interface (API) to connect to the vehicles. By using OnStar instead of connecting to a charging station, the Volts could change their charging patterns no matter where they plugged in, even if it is offsite.

APIs are not essential, but they can be very helpful. There are countless systems and standards for buildings and energy assets at the grid edge. Writing code for each one to be able to integrate into a system like TimberRock’s DE-MAP is just the sort of costly customization that could derail a startup.

In order to avoid getting lost down that path, Hollenbeck said TimberRock is mostly focusing on assets and systems that have exposed APIs, something that has happened more and more in just the past few years. “It’s definitely getting to be more straightforward,” he said.

The GM pilots have been playing the assets into PJM’s frequency regulation market, as well as reducing demand charges. In the future, TimberRock, like others looking to draw more value out of assets at the grid edge, sees the chance to participate in both capacity and ancillary service markets.

Outside of advanced clients like GM, which already owns a suite of assets, TimberRock sees a future working with independent power producers such as NRG and Exelon.

A pilot to showcase what’s possible

As one of a handful of winners of $500,000 grants from the state of Maryland, TimberRock will use some of the money to own many of the assets for this pilot. In the future, TimberRock does not plan to always own the assets it is controlling and dispatching.

“We’re going to be like a mini-IPP,” Hollenbeck said of the pilot. “We’ll be showing how you can deploy these in an aggregate way.” Other grant winners include the City of Baltimore, the University of Maryland, Systems 4 and Advanced Power Controls.

Hollenbeck would not disclose all of the participants that have signed up for the pilot, but said one is a large nonprofit. The total resources will add up to hundreds of kilowatts. The assets will be aggregated by TimberRock to be bid into the frequency regulation market, and the distributed energy assets will be routed together so that they can be islanded in the case of an outage. 

While TimberRock tries to establish relationships with large IPPs, it is also chasing opportunities in the municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals (MUSH) market with channel partners such as Ameresco for larger multi-megawatt projects.

Although there are many potential partners in the space, there is even more competition. Some of the large IPPs TimberRock is courting may be developing these capabilities themselves or working with partners that claim to do the same thing.

There are also numerous startups that are aggregating storage assets into wholesale markets, and other startups like Enbala and Viridity have been working on aggregating and bidding assets into markets for years. Demand-response and building-controls players from EnerNOC to Johnson Controls are also getting into these markets.

At this time, TimberRock does not see any competitors that offer the same mix of hardware and software to address the range of assets it claims it can control and deploy. And since the company does not actually want to own the assets in most cases, it sees many opportunities to forge alliances. 

“At the end of the day, someone is going to own all of these assets,” Hollenbeck said of potential partners. “Someone is going to get really smart about straddling the meter and bidding into markets.”