REDWOOD CITY, CA, Dec 14, 2022
Amit Narayan was inspired to find solutions to the challenges facing outdated and inefficient electricity grids nearly 12 years ago by his then 5-year-old son who started to cry when he became so concerned he would run out of air to breathe because of the exhaust from cars while sitting in traffic.
“That got me thinking like about the impact of human action on our planet, and what kind of life our kids and future generations will have,” says Narayan.
That incident would lead him on a journey to found AutoGrid in 2011 to provide an innovative approach to power distribution using software, data science and AI to make existing power grids more efficient and reduce the world’s carbon output. Narayan is the Founder and CEO of the Redwood City, California-based company, which is now a subsidiary of global energy giant Schneider Electric. This founder’s journey story is based on my interview with Narayan.
“The big aha moment for me was, one, the importance of the grid and two, the concept that the laws of physics don’t change. One of the things that we did to keep up with Moore’s Law over the last 30-40 years, is to perfect our capability to optimise systems, which have literally billions of transmission lines, and how we can squeeze the maximum amount of performance, minimise power consumption, and so on. And so none of that technology was ever applied to the power system domain. And so I wrote this concept paper, which said that we can use the same algorithms and techniques to optimise our power systems,” says Narayan.
With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer systems from Berkley and having been the founder of a chip design company, Narayan knew the world of micro chips, but knew little about the power grid. His concept resonated with his mentors and advisors from his chip design company. “I had an advisor from Stanford who was on the board. And Stanford was trying to start a program in this area as well at that point. And so they gave me the opportunity to come there and start a research group, even though I didn’t know a whole lot about the space. Call it luck or coincidence, that gave me the opportunity to enter this area. And then that eventually led to the creation of the company, after I started looking at how we can use these techniques,” says Narayan.
The company is part of the global boom in smart grid technologies whose market size was valued at $141.5 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach around $846.1 billion by the end of 2030, according to Vision Research Reports. Now positioned as a leader in the growing energy internet, AutoGrid has more than 50 customers from utilities and energy companies alike, including Florida Light & Power, Marine Clean Energy and Schneider Electric, who was so impressed with the technology it is both an early investor and customer.
“By using software and AI, we can actually find resources, which are available all around us, we just don’t rely realise that they are available. And we can create a resource that that can be used to balance the supply and demand equation,” says Narayan. For example HVAC systems in buildings can be adjusted by one or two degrees up or down, which over the course of millions of homes can add up very quickly, equalling the power generation of a nuclear plant, according to Narayan.
Electric vehicles is another example. California has a million electric cars, though most of the electric vehicles are parked most of the time. That means 90% of the time, the vehicle is not on the road, sitting in a garage either at home or an office. AutoGrid provides the means to tap into the battery during the times when the system needs it, which also creates a new source of revenue for the vehicle owner.
“We call this whole network of connected assets that we are optimising to software, a virtual power plant, because it’s not a real physical power plant. It’s where it acts like a power plant. And it provides the same services that a power plant is able to provide, except that it’s a superior product to a fossil fuel based power plant on practically every dimension that you can imagine. It is cleaner, and is cheaper, because we are monetizing the long tail of assets, which are underused,” says Narayan.
AutoGrid operates as an independent subsidiary of Schneider maintaining its own brand. Of the decision to partner with Schneider Electric, Narayan says, “We very nicely fit into their overall portfolio. And we can add value on both sides of where they were already operating. And from our perspective, also, it’s perfect from a vision and values perspective. We have worked with a lot of ecosystem partners, and we felt very good about a very strong alignment there.”
Narayan grew up on a college campus in India where his dad was a professor and was exposed at an early age to the intersection of research and technology and how it impacts the world. His family then moved to the UK for his father to work on his Ph.D. Then after several years, his father moved the family back to India to become a faculty member at a new Institute.
Narayan completed his studies in India but then decided to go to the U.S. to work on his Ph.D. in semiconductor chip design at UC Berkley. “I landed in California, and I was working in tech. So I decided this was the place for me. So I never really moved anywhere else,” says Narayan. With his work in system level optimization, he started his own chip design company almost right out of college.
“It was reasonably successful in the sense that we went through the whole cycle of developing the product, and it got acquired by a larger company, and then the product continued to grow and scale within that company. So that was a good experience. And that is around the time, when I started thinking about what’s next for me and this whole story around my children being young and inspiring me to look into this whole climate space. And that whole journey started sitting in gridlock,” says Narayan.
Billionaire and former Presidential candidate Tom Steyer founded a new research institute at Stanford looking for ideas in the grid space because they had identified this was a big area of environmental potential impact. “And so I was just there with a very fledgling idea of where we can apply all these techniques from other domains into this area,” says Narayan. At the same time, the Department of Energy was funding promising new technologies in this space and provided a $5 million grant to further explore Narayan’s concepts, which then became the basis for creating AutoGrid in 2011.
As for the future? “The stated goal is to grow the company and potentially go public in the future if the markets allow and we continue our organic and inorganic growth. I think from our perspective, the Schneider Electric partnership still preserves a lot of upside. It still preserves our ability to innovate and move fast. But it does bring us the scale, resources and reach to accelerate our growth and fulfill our mission to reduce the world’s carbon output,” concludes Narayan.
Founded in 2010, AutoGrid is committed to accelerating access to sustainable energy in order to combat the climate crisis. AutoGrid’s AI-driven software makes electric vehicles, batteries, roof-top solar, utility-scale wind and other distributed energy resources (DERs) smarter. By enabling prediction, optimization and real-time control of millions of energy assets at an unprecedented scale, AutoGrid is making the vision of a decentralized, decarbonized and democratized new energy world a reality. With over a decade of pioneering experience across the globe, AutoGrid offers fleet owners, energy-as-a-service companies, renewable project developers, utilities and electricity retailers the ability to build, own, operate and participate in intelligent and scalable Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), enabling them to disrupt dependency on fossil fuel-based energy. The AutoGrid Flex™ platform manages over 6,000 MW of VPPs in 17 countries.
For more information on AutoGrid please visit: https://www.auto-grid.com/
VP of Marketing and Communications, AutoGrid