Redwood City, CA, May 11, 2022
Schneider Electric wants to connect utility grids with the world of energy behind the utility meter. Autogrid’s virtual-power-plant technology platform will help.
Over the past 10 years, AutoGrid has become a major provider of technology that connects and orchestrates distributed energy resources (DERs) to serve grid needs, from household smart thermostats and EV chargers and rooftop solar and battery systems to industrial-scale equipment such as chillers, pumps and on-site generators.
Now AutoGrid’s technology and support services are set to become part of the Schneider Electric corporate empire, as is the growing portfolio of more than 6 gigawatts of DERs that AutoGrid manages across the world.
On Wednesday, the French energy equipment and services giant announced plans to buy the Sunnyvale, California–based startup for an undisclosed sum. AutoGrid will continue to operate as an independent company working with multiple technologies and customers after the expected close of the acquisition in the third quarter of this year, pending regulatory review.
Schneider has “the vision of unifying a set of solutions that go from the control center for the distribution network up to the consumer,” Arup Barat, AutoGrid’s head of marketing, said in an interview. “This acquisition is not to enter” a new market for Schneider, he said — “it’s to scale.”
AutoGrid’s core technology, built on unstructured data analytics and management techniques developed by CEO Amit Narayan at Stanford University, is well suited to scaling up to get millions of disparate DERs to work together, Barat said. Traditional utility command-and-control methods aren’t ideal for managing lots of different devices using varying control and communications technologies, he noted.
The fast-expanding world of VPPs and DERMS
The term “virtual power plant,” or VPP, is often used to describe technologies that can integrate and control lots of distributed generation resources, storage systems and flexible loads in ways that mimic how power plants can ramp up and down to balance the power grid. Solar and battery providers including Tesla, Sunrun and Sonnen have used the term to describe their work aggregating customers’ DERs to serve grid needs. So have demand-response aggregators such as Voltus, Enel X, CPower and Centrica’s REstore and startups such as Virtual Peaker and Enbala, the latter of which was acquired by generator and battery vendor Generac in 2020.
For utilities and grid operators, similar combinations of technologies that can detect, monitor and control these grid-edge devices tend to be classified as a distributed energy resource management system, or DERMS. GE, Siemens, Hitachi and Schneider are all working on these technologies, as are startups Smarter Grid Solutions, Spirae, Camus Energy and Opus One, a recent GE acquisition.
Whatever the terms used, the main challenge in moving from pilot projects to large-scale deployments has been designing a system that can adapt to changing circumstances and integrate an increasing and changing mix of devices, all without breaking down under the scale and complexity of the task, Barat said.
“Scalability is a very important capability,” he said. “Truly distributed demand response that you can count on and make part of your planning requires a different approach. You need in your platform the ability to verify every single asset, at a local level as well as an aggregated level.”
Barat pointed to AutoGrid’s work with Hong Kong–based utility CLP, which operates in China, Australia, India and Southeast Asia, as a test case for the company’s ability to scale to millions of devices. That work started with a microgrid pilot project in 2018 but has since expanded to “incorporate as many of [CLP’s] residential customers as it could,” he said, with “massive scale in terms of what they dispatch and control.”
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