The Race to Create the Brainiest Microgrid Controller: A Startup’s Story

Jan. 29, 2015
The microgrid controller is the mystique of local energy, the brains behind a microgrid. What’s it take to bring one to market in a crowded competitive field?

We are a culture enamored with David and Goliath stories about the high tech company started in a garage or dorm room that makes it big. In the energy world, the same kind of dynamic is arising. However, it involves not personal computers or social media, but the microgrid controller.

The microgrid controller* is the mystique of local energy, the brains that determine just how much fancy footwork a microgrid can do. The controller manages the microgrid’s energy supply and its relationship with the larger central grid.

The race is on to develop the best controller. Big companies like GE, Schneider Electric and Siemens are in, but so are a myriad of small startups. Everyone wants to prove their ‘kid’ is the smartest

It’s a heady, but competitive space, as one Denver startup is finding out.

“There is good news and bad news,” said James Corboy, an investment banker who is helping to commercialize a microgrid controller developed by two researchers at the University of Denver (DU) with National Science Foundation backing.

“Of all of the other programs out there for the science foundation, we probably have a greater understanding or appreciation of the potential opportunity from microgrid controllers,” Corboy said in a recent interview. “The bad news, of course, is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people chasing this. We’re trying to gain a greater understanding of the competitive landscape.”

The company is N’OVATION Strategies, which includes Corboy and David Wenzhong Gao, a DU associate professor and director of the DU Renewable Energy and  Power Electronics Laboratory and Shruti Singh, a doctoral student.

The team has been meeting with major power industry players – microgrid developers, grid operators, utilities, state regulators and federal researchers. What they’re learning is that the microgrid controller is a hot commodity.

“Everyone says yes, we really have interest, tell us what your technology does and how is it different. We can tell them what it does in the lab,” Corboy said.

Next, the fledgling company wants to demonstrate the controller’s real world abilities and is seeking partners to help it do so. The researchers suspect their controller is distinguished in its skill managing multiple forms of renewable energy at once – although with so many controllers under development they don’t know what’s hiding in another’s ‘garage.’

In any case, Corboy is convinced that it is not technological proficiency, alone, that will determine the market winners. He says it’s more about the business model.

“Even in its heyday there was general consensus that Microsoft didn’t have the best technology. But it didn’t matter. They knew how to market and package it,” said Corboy, who also serves as senior commercial advisor for Abengoa Transmission & Infrastructure.

So the team is focusing on carving out a market for their controller. They are evaluating military, university and hospital microgrids, in particular.

Corboy is optimistic. “There are two real buzzwords: energy storage and microgrids. For microgrids to be successful commercially and technologically, there needs to be good controllers. So I think it is going to be an important element. I don’t see microgrid controller companies being stand-alone success or failure stories. People who build the controllers are going to have to partner with somebody.”

So, microgrid experts out there, what’s your advice to this kind of startup? What are you looking for in a microgrid controller? And how do you perceive the competitive landscape? Post your thoughts in our comments section below or on our LinkedIn Group, Microgrid Knowledge.

*Definition of microgrid controller from the California Energy Commission’s PON-14-301: Microgrids are characterized by having a microgrid controller capable of automatically integrating and coordinating the generation, storage (if applicable), controllable loads, and the grid intertie equipment within the microgrid to interact with the larger grid as an aggregated single system. A microgrid controller includes the control functions that define the microgrid as a system that can manage itself, operate autonomously or grid connected, and seamlessly connect to and disconnect from the main distribution grid for the exchange of power and the supply of ancillary services. A microgrid controller should have both real-time control and energy management functions.

Some of these functions may include:

  • Grid-connected and islanded operation modes
  • Automatic transition from grid-connected to islanded mode to provide uninterrupted power to microgrid loads during abnormal bulk power system conditions
  • Resynchronization and reconnection from islanded mode to grid-connected mode
  • Energy management to optimize both real and reactive power generation and consumption
  • Ancillary services provision, by participating in the energy market and/or utility system operation where cost effective.
About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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