Lions, Pizza & the Energy Internet of Things

Dec. 29, 2015
Managing the energy internet of things isn’t like herding cats. It’s more like herding lions.

Credit: David Dennis

Back in the old days, the electric grid was pretty straight-forward.  Power plants generated electricity and sent it over wires to homes and businesses. Then came the energy internet of things.

The things — such as solar panels, learning thermostats, electric vehicles, energy storage and even human idiosyncrasy – add tremendous complexity.

To say energy management has become like herding cats understates the consequences. It’s more like herding lions with failure meaning danger to electric reliability.

Software company AutoGrid is demonstrating a way to keep the lions heading the right way – indeed to negotiate a path that uses the energy internet of things to achieve greater efficiency and better economics, and at times even serve a side of pizza.

The company calls this feat a ‘software-defined power plant.’ It is created by an automated system that learns over time how to best use the many ‘things’ connected to the grid or included in a microgrid.

The system responds to real-time market signals and can forecast what’s to come based on weather, energy pricing, the state of power plants, and other factors that create a “living portrait” of the grid, said John McLean, AutoGrid’s director of product marketing.

With this information the software automatically figures out what combination of things best meets the grid’s needs at a point in time.

Who’s Reliable in the Energy Internet of Things

“It is really the next generation of where utilities are headed as far as their ability to administer these distributed resources,” McLean said in a recent interview. “A key capability is being able to do all of this in real time and to scale. It is one thing to administer a few resources and do it manually. But that model is impractical when you get into the thousands or millions of connected devices.”

So when the grid needs power, the software might dispatch solar or combined heat and power. Or it might turn to batteries in buildings or use demand response or some cost-effective configuration of these or other resources that are available at that moment.

Most interesting, the system learns over time who to count on. It keeps a kind of scorecard on how well the various resources perform when called upon. Say the grid is under strain and needs demand response.  One business reduces its energy use immediately upon request, another takes several minutes. The software makes note and takes the reponse time into account for future planning.

The software can even track human motivation and adjust its messaging accordingly. Maybe a household ignores emailed requests from the utility to turn down the AC when the grid is reaching peak demand. The system will try to figure out why. Was it because the email used an environmental rationale, and the household isn’t motivated to reduce emissions? The program will then try a different entreaty. It might talk about cost savings or suggest you go outside and play with friends — or even offer money toward a pizza if you reduce your energy use.

Managing Microgrids

For microgrids, the software can help in more than one way. It can manage both the microgrid’s internal and external relationships.

So when the microgrid islands, the software acts as a generation management system, choosing the best mix of power, storage, or demand response to activate. When the microgrid is connected to the grid, the software navigates the give-and-take between the microgrid and grid. For example, it might determine if the microgrid should be buying or selling power from the grid. Or if a utility is using the software, the microgrid might be managed as another of the many things on grid.

AutoGrid’s software is device agnostic. So it doesn’t matter what things the microgrid or utility are managing or who manufactured them.  “We can go to a utility and say, ‘Any device you want to connect to your grid or microgrid, we are able to control.’ We are comfortable that whatever is out there, we are able to talk to it, turn it up or down, or off or on,” McLean said.

As AutoGrid shops the software-defined power plant concept, the four-year-old company enters the market with some impressive deals and awards.  Among them, are a 2015 Red Herring Top 100 in America award, given to innovative start-ups. AutoGrid also was a finalist in Platts’ Rising Star Company category this year and was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer for 2015.

Paris-based Electro Power Systems recently chose AutoGrid technology to build and operate software-defined power plants with its hydrogen-based battery energy storage systems.  Dutch company Eneco is using the software to manage distributed energy.

Various AutoGrid technology’s also are used by E.ON, Bonneville Power Administration, Florida Power & Light, Southern California Edison, Portland General Electric, and the City of Palo Alto Utilities, Schneider Electric, Silver Spring Networks and NTT Data.

The energy internet of things is still pretty small. So Autogrid is early to the market with its software-defined power plant. But more and more devices will find their way on to the grid. The things are coming. “The opportunity is huge,” McLean said.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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