Energy Storage: It's All About The Software

Author:Ucilia Wang     Source:Forbes     Click:621     Publish time:2013/3/1 10:55:06

Novel batteries for storing solar and wind energy have gotten a lot of attention from researchers and investors, but they can’t do their job without software that tells them when and how much energy to charge and discharge. A startup called Growing Energy Labs Inc. is developing an operating system that will give a battery system the brain to perform its tasks, and the company plans to launch a beta version of the software in a few weeks.

An operating system to manage batteries would work much like an operating system for your computer or cell phone: it coordinates the communications between the hardware and the apps to make sure the various programs, such as those for taking photos and browsing the Internet in the case of cell phones, are running well and do not interfere with each other.

“It’s like a computer for energy or energy computer,” said Ryan Wartena, founder and CEO of Growing Energy Labs (which he also refers to as GELI), about his company’s technology.

Wartena started GELI in 2010 to tackle the emerging markets of storing renewable energy such as solar power and for managing electric car charging. The idea is to come up with ways to put networking and communication technologies, including the use of Internet, into running a battery system. GELI would make money from licensing the software.

Over half of the states now require their utilities to buy an increasing amount of renewable energy, but wind and solar power plants in particular don’t generate electricity steadily around the clock like coal or natural gas power plants can. As a result, utilities have to figure out how to balance the supply with the demand when the supply might fall short or exceed the need at any given time of the day.

Using batteries to bank solar and wind energy and releasing it when there is demand for it seem to be a good answer. A good battery system needs an operating system to manage the communications between the battery and the inverter and to respond to a utility’s command for when, how fast and how much to dispatch the energy stored in the battery. An inverter converts the direct current from the battery into the alternating current for feeding the grid.

Utilities aren’t alone in considering batteries for energy storage. Consumers and businesses who have solar panels on their rooftops might want batteries to provide backup power or to sell excess electricity to utilities.

Currently, a battery system typically includes the cells for storing energy, as well as the electronics and software for monitoring the cells’ temperature and performance to make sure they don’t overheat or otherwise malfunction. Another layer of software is needed to tell the battery what to do. Because the use of batteries for renewable energy storage is relatively new, the software used to run them could find its source in software that was originally designed to run other types of industrial equipment, such as the computer system to run a utility’s power generation and distribution operations. The software also tends to limit the battery to perform one or only a few tasks, Wartena said.

GELI, on the other hand, is building the operating software specifically for running energy storage equipment, and the operating system will enable batteries to perform many more tasks, Wartena said.

“The real insight that we are building an energy operating system around is that you want to use the batteries for multiple things,” he said.

In fact, a battery system can perform more than a dozen tasks, from sending short bursts of power to stabilize the electric grid to releasing a steady supply of electricity over a longer period of time when there is a lot of demand for power.

The company also plans to make the core language of its operating system available this summer to developers who can then use it to design new applications, much in the same way that companies like Apple have cultivated a community of app developers around their gadgets. GELI would oversee the project and pay developers whose applications GELI could incorporate into its software.

Wartena is looking to raise $750,000 to get the beta version of the operating system to battery makers who are willing to test it and see if they would incorporate into their products.  He then wants to raise another $3 million in early 2013 to release an improved version of the operating system. The company is one of the five startups who recently graduated from an incubator program called Greenstart. Greenstart provided each startup $115,000 and coaching from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

GELI has lined up some battery makers, such as Korea-based Kokam, that are willing to test its operating system and see if the software is a good fit for their batteries. The beta version of its operating system will be used in several battery systems in Korea, Washington, D.C., and Canada in the coming weeks for field testing. These battery systems are small and meant for storing renewable energy from equipment designed for homes and businesses.

The company is marketing its technology to battery makers who have been supplying their products largely for consumer electronics and don’t have the expertise to design software to run their batteries as renewable energy storage systems.

Some battery developers do design their own operating systems. Texas-based Xtreme Power, for example, considers the software that controls its battery systems its core technology. Xtreme has been building and running battery systems for solar and wind power projects in several states. Maryland-based Greensmith, on the other hand, focuses on developing energy storage operating software.

Virginia-based AES Energy Storage, which buys battery systems to build and operate energy storage projects, relies on its in-house software development team to create an operating system. There aren’t many choices on the market that are available for licensing or good enough to run the battery systems the way AES wants to in order to sell its services to power producers and utilities, said John Zahurancik, vice president of operations and deployment at AES Energy Storage. The company has completed projects that included a 32-megawatt (8 megawatt-hour) battery system, located next to a wind farm in West Virginia, that can deliver electricity in 15-minute increments.

“We are in the market early, and we saw a need for that layer of customization of what the customers want,” Zahurancik said. “As the energy storage market grows, the need for software control will also grow.”

Keywords:Energy Storage: It's All About The Software
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