by Jeff St. John
June 30, 2017

Greentech Media just wrapped up Grid Edge World Forum 2017 in San Jose, and now it’s time to digest what we’ve learned.

Thanks to those of you who participated in -- and survived -- the three days of back-to-back speakers, panel discussions and presentations. Those who couldn’t make it should expect a steady stream of reportage and analysis from the event.  

In the meantime, I’d like to highlight some of the most interesting stories I came across during my time at the conference -- some of them breaking news, and others slow reveals of companies that have been making progress on the frontiers of distributed energy integration. 

Opus One and a mystery utility take on DERs and grid optimization across space and time

Let’s start with some understated -- yet potentially groundbreaking -- news from the utility side of the grid edge. It’s from Opus One Solutions, a Canadian startup that fits into a specific set of distribution grid software vendors (Smarter Grid Solutions, Spirae, and Causam Energy's Power Analytics) that deal with distribution grid power flow modeling and other, more technical challenges for DER integration. 

On Tuesday, the Ontario, Canada-based startup announced an interesting expansion of its GridOS software suite, taking it beyond near-term operational aspects like distributed energy resource management and microgrid controls, and into longer-range planning. 

And in a first for the industry, Opus One has landed a “large U.S. investor-owned utility” to use its newly enhanced software for integrated resource planning -- the part of utility planning that deals with power plants, transmission grid investments, and region-wide load forecasts with decade-long timescales. 

I sat down with Opus One CEO Joshua Wong and Chief Commercial Officer Keyvan Cohanim at Tuesday’s conference to learn more. While they wouldn’t reveal the name of the large U.S. utility in question, they did note that it’s a new partner for the company -- a fact that would rule out National Grid, at least, which has been working with Opus One on a project in New York state since last year. 

The unnamed utility has also told Opus One that its merger of DER operations and planning with its integrated resource planning is a “first of its kind” effort, Cohanim said. “You could say that utilities say they have not seen anything like this in the marketplace before.” 

As far as what’s new with Opus One’s software, “what we’ve talked about in the past is around operational planning -- removing obstacles, helping utilities by providing them with visibility control, optimization and valuation of DERs,” he said. “This new announcement really takes that knowledge and expertise, and those algorithms, and brings all of it into the planning sphere -- how they might use DERs for non-wires alternatives, how they could defer infrastructure expense by doing DER placement in strategic areas of their grid, and helping them to develop programs to promote DER growth where it helps the grid as well as customers.”  

Wong added some more technical details, such as Opus One’s ability to run quasi-static time-series simulations -- using fine-grained power flow data on circuits with significant DER penetration to forecast future power flows under different DER operations scenarios. That’s an important piece of information for utilities planning to replace the deterministic data sets of traditional grid planning with the stochastic (i.e., random and variable) effects of behind-the-meter energy resources like solar PV, or based on consumer energy consumption behavior. 

The one thing Opus One doesn’t do is forecast things like customer DER adoption or demographic changes that will affect long-term distribution grid investment needs, said Wong. To bring in that side of the equation, the startup is working with Integral Analytics, a company that’s been working on such projects with customers including PG&E, Duke Energy and Canada’s PowerShift Atlantic project. 

With its newly announced utility partner, “since they are vertically integrated, we’re adding one more thing -- how DERs impact bulk system planning and operations,” explained Wong. This merger of distribution and transmission grid needs is one of the more complex tasks facing utilities, grid operators and states such as California and New York that pushing for broader integration of DERs. 

We’ve seen pilot projects and policy proposals galore on this front Opus One’s new deployment may well be the first to take it on through a commercial-scale utility software deployment. 

Swisscom and Tiko: The biggest virtual power plant you’ve never heard of

While the United States hasn’t yet created the regulatory structures to allow distributed energy resources to play into transmission grid markets, Europe is several steps ahead of the game. This week’s conference offered a couple of examples on this front, one of which may constitute the largest collection of grid-responsive homes in the world, with some 6,500 homes and more than 10,000 devices connected.

The company behind the project is Swisscom Energy Solutions, a joint venture of telco Swisscom and utility Repower, formed in 2012 around a technology platform dubbed tiko.

Using an in-home device connected via Wi-Fi and broadband, it connects household loads, ranging from water heaters and air conditioners to rooftop solar and behind-the-meter batteries, and manages them to optimize their energy usage to meet a customer's goals, explained Sandra Trittin, the company's co-founder and head of business development and marketing, during a Wednesday panel discussion.

On the grid side, tiko has built the relationships and technical linkages to bid the flexibility of its aggregated households into various energy markets, she said. Its first is the frequency response markets run by Europe’s transmission system operators (TSOs), which requires participants to increase or reduce energy consumption in 1-second increments -- a response time that tiko has proven it can meet with greater than 99 percent accuracy, better than many power plants, she noted. 

Of the 40 megawatts of peak load being managed across its portfolio of homes, roughly 10 to 15 megawatts at any one time can be made available to serve this grid market, Trittin said. Tiko manages this flexibility against its knowledge of how each home tends to consume energy throughout the day, balanced against the value of shifting that profile to maximize the financial return. 

Swisscom Energy Solutions is white-labeling the software to several partners in Europe, including Sonnen, the German startup that’s competing with Tesla and other companies providing residential energy storage systems. Indeed, Sonnen’s recently launched “SonnenFlat,” which offers solar-equipped homeowners low- or no-cost batteries in return for being able to tap them for grid services revenues, is using tiko to manage those grid interactions, she said. 

At the same time, Swisscom Energy Solutions decided to work as its own aggregator in Switzerland after finding that “things were moving too slowly for us,” Trittin told me in a conversation before the conference. And since about half of the 6,500 homes it’s serving are attractive targets for solar-storage economics, she estimated, it has been offering Sonnen batteries under its own “tiko storage” brand since February.

It’s also supported by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, which worked with the company from 2014 to 2016 on a project to integrate electrical heaters -- a big load for many houses, and one that provides a good deal of flexibility without sacrificing homeowners’ comfort.

Being able to control loads like these also helps tiko’s customers achieve their goals of maximizing their self-consumption of solar power in regions where that’s more economical than selling it back to the utility. A battery can soak up much of this excess power, adding smart heaters, air conditioners and other appliances adds important extra resources. 

REstore and Orange: Embedded-intelligence appliances and ubiquitous low-power wireless networks

Jan-Willem Rombouts, the co-CEO of Belgian startup REstore, described another interesting experiment in European grid-customer integration during a Thursday panel on grid edge opportunities in deregulated markets.

REstore has built up more than a gigawatt of peak load under management -- with a roster of 80-plus industrial customers including ArcelorMittal, Praxair, Sappi and Barclays -- converting various flexible loads and generation resources into revenue-generating opportunities, starting with primary reserves markets run by Belgian transmission system operator Elia. 

But in recent months, REstore has been getting into the residential side of the business, through a smart city project in Antwerp led by telecom operator Orange and microchip and IT company Imec, which provide the networking and IT infrastructure. To bring household appliances into the picture, REstore is working with appliance manufacturers that are embedding the required smarts and connectivity in various devices, starting with water heaters, said Rombouts.

Since the project got underway early this year, REstore’s partners have made hundreds of these smart boilers available for purchase by homeowners in Belgium and the Netherlands, Rombouts said in an interview after his panel. The company expects about 500 of them to be ready for service in primary reserves markets by September.

Much like Swisscom’s approach, REstore is promising reduced bills without sacrificing comfort, as long as customers agree to allow systems to be used for grid services. But the smart city project is also seeking to prove that Orange’s newly deployed low-power, wide-area NarrowBand IOT network can reliably communicate with all of these smart appliances without the need for a household cellular or Wi-Fi gateway, further reducing costs of implementation. 

Apparent: Turning smart inverters and edge controls into aggregated grid services 

California is the U.S. market closest to catching up with Europe on aggregating DERs for grid markets, with grid operator CAISO opening up its day-ahead markets to distributed energy resource providers (DERPs) this summer.

At Thursday’s conference, we caught up with one of the most secretive companies seeking to become a player in this new distributed energy market opportunity: Apparent Inc.

I first met Apparent CEO George Salah back in 2013, when he’d just joined the company and brought on investors including himself -- as Google’s employee No. 35 and its global real estate director for 14 years, he presumably has a lot of money. Salah wouldn’t reveal much about Apparent’s technology or business model back then, and the startup has kept a low profile since then. 

I learned a lot more about the company during a Thursday interview with Salah and Bonnie Lind, vice president of business development. The two covered details, including Apparent's lead role in developing and testing smart inverter standards, the additional functionality it can provide beyond these standards, and how it’s actively putting together aggregations to play under CAISO’s new DERP market rules. 

In simple terms, Apparent makes smart solar inverters and control units, and has deployed more than 20 megawatts of commercial-industrial systems to date, Lind said. But “the power electronics is just the enabling device,” according to Salah. “The exciting component of the platform is software -- that’s where the real magic happens.” 

Salah wouldn’t disclose how much money Apparent has raised from whom, beyond describing the investors as “a tight-knit group of like-minded individuals,” as well as some private banking relationships funding work that it's doing in Hawaii -- a move that brings the company into the project development realm. 

At present, like many other companies trying to get real-world products into emerging markets, “we’re doing everything,” he said, from making its hardware to lining up financing. “We don’t want to do that forever.”

In the meantime, “we’re building capacity and we’re building our own revenue streams” -- the DERP opportunity being one of the first. 

So far, Apparent has put together three potential DERP aggregations, or DERPAs, as Lind puts it. One with Silicon Valley Power was put on hold earlier this year, after it was discovered the partners could get more value out of taking Pacific Gas & Electric rebates for the solar capacity  than bidding it into CAISO’s markets, she said. 

One more is in active development in PG&E territory, and the parties are working through some of the complicated details that come with converting a system built for power plants to one taking resources that are spread all over the place, she said.

California is starting to see DERs grow to the point where they can make a difference at the system-wide level, forcing the state to confront questions about how utilities and CAISO should share information about what they’re doing. On that front, Apparent can can provide data and real-time visibility into power flow and quality for distribution circuits that could help fill these data gaps, as well as data disaggregated from a building’s load profile, Lind said. 

Apparent’s software can also turn its inverters into engines of active and reactive power injection and voltage and frequency management, either via utility signals or in an automated fashion using its own software, Salah said. “We’ve been very quiet for a long time, on purpose,” he said. But expect to hear more from Apparent soon enough.