by Jeff St. John
January 31, 2020

SAN ANTONIO — The power grid business is increasingly about integrating renewable energy and distributed energy resources at scale. Just ask any grid vendor at DistribuTech, the country’s biggest annual utility industry trade show. 

As with years past, this year’s DistribuTech conference featured a dizzying array of technologies to monitor, manage and orchestrate electricity that’s increasingly coming from rooftop solar PV, behind the meter batteries, plug-in electric vehicles or commercial-industrial microgrids. It also showcased the software innovations that are allowing utilities to tap demand-side resources to balance their growing wind and solar mix, or tap smart meter data for customer and grid insights through energy disaggregation technologies. 

We’ve tracked the year-by-year progress from grid giants like General ElectricSiemens, ABB and Schneider Electric in bridging the gap between traditional grid technologies and the new world of distributed energy resources (DERs) and digital networks. Much of this work falls under the common rubric of distributed energy resource management system, or DERMS — a term that means very different things, depending on how the underlying technology is put together. 

Schneider Electric and AutoGrid's promise 

Take the evolving definition of DERMS from Schneider Electric, the French electricity and grid technology giant that’s acquired or invested in dozens of startups and a handful of coequals in its various fields.

Among its most recent investments was its 10 percent stake in AutoGrid, which came with plans to tap the Silicon Valley startup’s machine learning and data analytics software for distributed energy controls. 

At this week’s DistribuTech, the two announced the fruits of this effort — an integration of Schneider’s Ecostruxure advanced distribution management system (ADMS), a much-used distribution grid control system, with AutoGrid’s Flex platform. The integration is meant to provide utility grid operators a single view for “modeling, forecasting, optimizing and orchestrating flexibility” from behind-the-meter assets ranging from batteries and generators to smart thermostats and appliances. 

Many modern ADMS platforms come with the ability to tap into data from DERs, and dispatch or constrain them in response to grid operator demands. But as Amit Narayan, AutoGrid CEO, explained in an interview at DistribuTech, “to be able to bring those behind-the-meter assets in, you need to understand not only the characteristics of the assets, but just as importantly, the contracts with the customers that determine what you can dispatch, what limits you have." 

"The ADMS doesn’t have any of that data,” Narayan said — but AutoGrid’s system does. 

The startup’s demand response optimization software is being used by utilities across the country, including San Antonio utility CPS Energy, which has about 200 megawatts of load under management, and by National Grid to manage about 400 megawatts of demand resources in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It’s also orchestrating behind-the-meter loads and DERs for customers in North America, Europe and Asia, ranging from industrial heating and cooling systems to behind-the-meter batteries

A lot of data must be collected and analyzed to track the physical, operational and contractual capabilities and constraints of a broad portfolio of DERs, particularly when they’re being relied upon by grid operators. But “without that data, you can’t make the right decisions,” Narayan said. “We bring what’s available within that context for a particular feeder or circuit, and the ADMS makes that visible, and can make those decisions based on that capability of the end devices.”

The Schneider-AutoGrid integration uses the IEEE 2030.5 standard to exchange data and commands, and is compatible with other ADMS platforms and utility systems, Narayan noted. That’s helpful for utilities seeking to solve problems on specific circuits, such as managing DERs that have been enlisted as a non-wires alternative to a traditional grid upgrade, and “we are working with [non-wires alternative] providers and aggregators” on this kind of integration, including California behind-the-meter battery aggregator Swell, he said. 

The same kind of DER control capabilities are also available to customers who aren’t using a utility ADMS, such as commercial and industrial microgrid clients, he said. Schneider is a big player in islands and remote microgrids, has several showcase utility microgrid projects with Duke Energy and Oncor, and is bringing modular microgrids to market with partners like Scale Microgrid Solutions

Modularity is critical for Schneider and other grid giants in dealing with DERs in the real world, said Scott Koehler, vice president of global strategy for Schneider’s smart grid IT division.

“One thing that’s really important, and required discipline, is developing a DERMS that is lightweight, small-scale, modular, and suitable for a non-wires alterative on a given feeder,” Koehler said. 

Because DERs in the field may not be able to communicate with an ADMS in real time, the system in place must be able to manage their operations somewhat independently of utility control, he added. “This allows a DERMS to share with an ADMS, ‘I have this curtailment plan; I have this service.’ Normally the ADMS doesn’t have any idea.” 

These kinds of tasks are made easier with AutoGrid’s software being available via partner AWS’s cloud service, he noted. “We can do a single instance of DERMS that is on a single virtual machine, integrate directly with DER and dispatch them, or integrate with a third-party ADMS.” 

ABB’s grid edge portfolio in transition to Hitachi

ABB, one of the world’s oldest power grid systems companies, made waves in late 2018 with its decision to refocus on industrial automation and robotics by selling 80 percent of its power grids business to Japan’s Hitachi for about $11 billion. 

The deal will see ABB’s venerable power grid unit, which ranges from high-voltage transmission systems and transformers to distribution grid controls and battery systems, fill a missing link in Hitachi’s energy businesses, which range from large-scale generation assets to digital home and building energy controls and services. 

M. Maxine Ghavi, head of ABB Grid Edge Solutions, declined to comment on the ABB-Hitachi joint venture in a Tuesday interview at DistribuTech, or discuss the progress of the transaction, set to close in the first half of this year. But she did lay out how the business unit’s grid automation platforms, microgrid and building energy controls, and energy storage design and integration capabilities — a combination ABB calls its "e-mesh" digital ecosystem — fits into an increasingly distributed energy landscape. 

ABB has been building microgrids for remote critical loads for decades now, as well as integrating them into larger grids with rising levels of renewable energy, she noted. That experience has fed into ABB’s PowerStore energy storage business, which includes its own flywheel grid-balancing technology, plus batteries from other vendors. In the past year, ABB has boosted its microgrid efforts with partnerships with generator maker Rolls-Royce and Swiss fund manager and energy storage investor SUSI Partners

On the software and networking side, Grid Edge Solutions includes its ADMS, SCADA, EMS and microgrid controls, as well as integration with ABB’s enterprise digital solutions’ suite of asset management and data analytics software. But underneath all these tools, “our core business is around energy optimization and energy management,” Ghavi said — and that means integrating DERs at scale. 

In 2017, ABB picked Enbala as its chief DERMS partner, integrating with and investing in the startup’s technology for aggregating and controlling fast-responding commercial and industrial loads for energy and ancillary services markets. Enbala has since expanded into broader projects with utilities featuring a broader array of behind-the-meter assets, including its 1,000-home solar-battery virtual power plant project with Australian utility AGL. 

These experiences are reflected in the latest improvements to Enbala’s software platform, dubbed Concerto, announced at this week’s DistribuTech. The list of DERs in Concerto’s library now extends to solar-storage systems including the Tesla and SolarEdge systems being used by AGL, an array of gensets and combined heat and power systems, and legacy demand response systems, and will add electric vehicle charging systems later this year, building on a pilot launched last year with Canada’s Alectra Utilities.

All of these DERs are being orchestrated at the Skagerak Arena soccer stadium in Skien, Norway, Ghavi said. The project, launched in 2018 and completed last year, includes an 800-kilowatt rooftop solar array, batteries, EV chargers and some neighboring homes linked into its microgrid circuit. It also includes control and optimization technology to balance the operations of these assets against energy market prices — “It’s basically the same control technology, but the application is different,” she said. 

ABB is also developing cloud versions of its monitoring and control software for customers without on-premise hosting capacity, as well as cloud-based analytics and optimization add-ons for utilities and corporate clients that do have them, she said. As with many of its competitors, the end goal is to “enable services” for customers with increasingly complicated energy options and challenges, she said. “As we look at the different applications for the platform, we’re looking at flexibility.”