What the Schneider/Autogrid Deal Signals about the Future of Microgrids

June 25, 2019
Schneider Electric’s recent decision to take a stake in Autogrid hints at the future relationship between utilities and microgrids as data exchange grows in sophistication.

Schneider Electric’s recent decision to take a stake in Autogrid hints at the future relationship between utilities and microgrids as data exchange grows in sophistication.

A global energy leader in energy management and automation, Schneider is a strong player in both microgrids and the utility market. Autogrid, a California energy software company, has been honing data-gathering from utilities since the Obama-era explosion of smart grid technology.

The two companies also have been working together about that long. But Schneider decided to formalize the partnership last month as it became increasingly clear how matched their efforts are — and where the industry is heading, according to Mark Feasel, vice president of smart grid, Schneider Electric.

On the utility side of the market, Schneider offers control center level tools, such as an advanced distribution management system. On the customer side, the company provides microgrids and distributed energy.

Between those two sides — utility and customer — the flow of data is growing, and that’s what Autogrid collects and analyzes.

More complex microgrids

“Of course, one of the reasons utilities are making all this data, or want all this data, is because the edge of their grid is getting more complex, and they’ve got to figure out how to operate in a smarter fashion,” Feasel said in an interview with Microgrid Knowledge.

What specifically do Autogrid’s products bring to Schneider’s microgrid play?

Microgrids are increasingly used not just for reliability, but to help customers achieve various energy goals, such as sustainability or cost reductions.

To achieve these goals, advanced microgrids interface with the utility as it configures the best mix of resources — utility and microgrid — based on pricing , weather, available resources and other factors at any given time.

Today’s signaling is relatively simple, along the lines of what’s on and what’s off. But Feasel sees the communication becoming increasingly sophisticated in the future, more subtle “gradients of what’s working, when it’s working.”

Such signals require “a much more comprehensive connection to the utilities, and the markets, and we see Autogrid being a real key part of that,” Feasel said.

The Autogrid platform creates new kinds of signals for customers, he said. Schneider intends to augment its microgrids “to interface with those signals at a very deep level.”

“How do we build a seamless customer service so that we can up data channels, and how does it play out with its end customers?” said Ben Cohen, head of global strategy at Autogrid, in a separate  interview. “Because we can connect to upstream hardware — generation and transmission — we can increase the value around demand response and pass on greater savings to customers.”

The partnership creates value, Cohen adds, because customers will learn how much energy is consumed for each building connected to the microgrid. They will be able to use the data to forecast load and to shift energy usage. And once a solution is agreed upon, the assets can be managed accordingly — true whether the microgrid is islanded or connected to the main grid.

“It is all about how reactive you are to market conditions,” he said.

As energy becomes more distributed and as customers become more proactive with their providers, these kinds of services will only proliferate.

Expanding scope

Autogrid has made clear its intent to expand into global markets. For example, the company recently announced its technology will be used in the world’s largest behind-the-meter virtual power plant, a project being developed in Japan.

So the partnership contributes not only to Schneider’s microgrid foray in North America, one of the world’s strongest markets, but also helps its broader global strategy. 

“Clearly one of the reasons that we have decided to invest in Autogrid is because they have the capability to take us around the world and not just in to North America,” Feasel said.

The investment is led by Schneider Electric Ventures, which focuses on incubating, investing, and partnering with start-ups to achieve a sustainable energy future.

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