As DERs proliferate, utilities ramp up investments in storage startups

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These investments keep utilities ahead of the curve and vet new technologies

Energy storage is not just growing in terms of deployments, it is also been attracting a growing level of investment from industry and the utility sector.

Just this month, Exelon affiliate Constellation Technology Ventures invested an undisclosed sum in Qnovo, a provider of software designed to enhance battery performance. Also in June, the venture capital arm of General Electric made a mid double-digit million-euro investment in German energy storage hardware and services provider Sonnen.

“Utilities are looking to capitalize on the potential of distributed energy and have turned to venture investment as a way to understand market developments and vet new technologies and partners,” Andrew Mulherkar, grid edge analyst at GTM Research said.

Constellation Technology Ventures (CTV) has one of the most active venture arms of any global utility holding company. In addition to Qnovo, CTV has invested in energy storage with funding for Aquion and, with French energy giant TotalEnergies, in Stem.

“We consider energy storage technology an increasingly viable component to support grid reliability, the growth of distributed renewable generation resources and customers’ ability to more actively manage their energy usage,” CTV manager Scott Dupcak said.

Dupcak said CTV invests in growth-stage companies that represent innovative energy technologies and business models that complement Exelon’s core businesses. He said those investments help the company to stay ahead of the curve as the development and deployment of energy technology accelerates, both at regulated utilities and in competitive markets.

In addition, Dupcak said, customer interest in decentralized technologies, such as distributed energy and energy storage, as well as technologies to manage energy use in homes and businesses, is growing as well.

In addition to Qnovo and Aquion, CTV has investments in C3 Energy, a provider of smart grid analytics; Charge Point, a provider of analytics for electric car charging stations; Powerhouse Dynamics, a provider of building energy management systems for portfolios of small commercial facilities; and Stem a developer of energy storage facilities.

Where one leads, others follow

Exelon is not the only utility investing in energy storage. Last September, American Electric Power (AEP) made a $5 million investment in Greensmith, a Maryland-based company that offers software to operate and manage energy storage systems.

And Duke Energy in October acquired a majority share of Phoenix Energy Technologies, a provider of energy management systems and services for commercial customers. In 2013, Duke joined a venture capital round for Clean Power Finance, a provider of financial and software services to the solar power industry.

Duke was one of four utilities investing in Clean Power Finance. Two have remained anonymous; the other was Edison Energy Group, a unit of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison.

Edison Energy Group also has investments in Optimum Energy, which provides energy services to commercial and industrial customers; Proterra, a manufacturer of electric drive buses and zero-emission commercial vehicles; and Enbala Power Networks, a developer of solutions for distributed energy resource management.

And, more recently, AutoGrid Systems raised $20 million in venture capital financing from Energy Impact Partners, a utility group that includes Southern Company, Xcel Energy, Oncor and National Grid, and Envision Ventures.

AutoGrid builds software applications that manage networked distributed energy resources in real time and at scale.

In most of these investments, one of the themes is a reluctance on the part of utilities to make a bet on the many different battery chemistries vying for market share.

“Investing in battery-agnostic software is less risky than making a bet on a specific battery technology, and is closer to a utility’s core competency of managing grid assets,” said Mulherkar. The investments also speak to utilities’ developing need to manage a variety of behind-the-meter assets, he added.

In a few recent instances, some power companies are also stepping up as acquirers. Engie recently acquired 80% of Green Charge Networks. And in May, Southern Co. completed the $425-million acquisition of PowerSecure, a microgrid developer with a 1,500-MW portfolio.

In those cases, the investments are a way to investigate distributed energy technologies and commercialize them for their competitive retail customer bases, Mulherkar said.

Source: Utility Dive.

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