The Powerful Capabilities of AEP’s Dolan Labs

Thanks to the efforts of Chris Mather, co-head of the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, I was able to gain a tour of the Dolan Laboratories, located just outside Columbus, owned and operated by American Electric Power (NYSE:  AEP).

This facility is now highly unusual for the electric utility industry.  Back in the day, a few other utilities had their own laboratories to test the basic equipment upon which the power grid is based.  Alas, most of those laboratories have since been shut down or spun-out to private operators.  Indeed, now even the Electric Power Research Institute – the industry’s collective non-profit R&D organization – sometimes uses Dolan for their work.

The labs at Dolan include chemical and water testing facilities and civil engineering (especially related to concrete) capabilities that are mostly relevant for powerplants.  However, our tour was mainly focused on the Dolan Technology Center:  the set of facilities and equipment employed for testing assets downstream of generation, particularly transmission and distribution.

Electric power transmission and distribution lines look pretty benign, given the lack of moving parts.  However, the forces in (and around, and caused by) these cables are, well, shocking.

At Dolan, AEP has the ability to discharge 1.2 megavolts, which creates something not far removed from a lightning bolt.  In addition to electrical energy, the labs have physical equipment inside containment rooms that can impart extreme mechanical forces to push supporting items like conductors and mounts to their breaking points.  The resulting explosions unleash shrapnel much like a hand grenade.

Trust me:  do not try this at home.  I won’t get into any specifics, but the stories associated with working on grid infrastructure – usually when something is not right, often in difficult environmental conditions (night, rain, snow, wind, cold, heat) – are sobering.

A key function of Dolan is to quality check the supplies that AEP receives from its vendors before deploying to its grid, where failures harm service reliability, pose safety risks and are expensive to repair.

To illustrate, our host Bob Burns (Manager of the Dolan Technology Center) showed us how Dolan has been working to improve underground distribution cables.  Twenty years ago, due to the novelty of the technology, AEP rejected upon receipt about 5% of its underground cable purchases owing to unknown defects.   Dolan was able to identify the root causes of cable failure and work with manufacturers to dramatically reduce those failures by changing designs and production processes – with economic, reliability and safety benefits that redound not only to AEP but to the power industry at large.

In addition to its grid focus, the Dolan Technology Center also includes a number of end-use application testing facilities.  For instance, the main facility includes a dummy household kitchen containing a number of appliances (stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, water heaters) and control systems, a spectrum of electric vehicle recharging stations, and various installations of advanced lighting and metering technologies.

Although we spent most of the tour indoors, outside were some other uncommon capabilities.  Down the road a half-mile was a former site of a small peaker powerplant, at which Dolan staff experiments with novel technologies relevant for microgrids, including grid-scale energy storage and small-scale distributed generation.  It was here that Dolan has been helping Echogen with their innovative waste heat recovery technology, and it is here that the Dolan is testing community energy storage approaches for AEP’s GridSmartOhio pilot program to be rolled out in suburban Columbus.

It should be noted that AEP contracts out Dolan’s equipment and staff to perform services on behalf of third-parties, and that they have ample spare capacity.  Facilities like this are not found in very many places.  It’s an asset that the cleantech community should capitalize upon more fully.  If you need some specialized technical help related to the power industry – especially in on high-voltage issues – and you’re not able to find a place to get work done, I’m sure the good folks at AEP’s Dolan Laboratories would be happy to take your call to see if they can fit the bill.

The Networked Electric Vehicle

EV Solar  Charging Station Electric Vehicle and Smart Grid Networks

Thousands of electric cars are now communicating with owner’s smart phones, charging stations, and service networks. These EVs are plugging into smart grids that use network communications to charge off-peak, monitor and improve reliablity.

When I use my Blink EVSE to charge my Nissan Leaf, the charger sends a packet of info to the charging network every 15 minutes using Sprint. The charger is communications-ready supporting CDMA, Wi-Fi, and powerline communications (PLC). With the Nissan LEAF app on my Droid I can remotely monitor charging, or pre-heat or pre-cool the car while still plugged-in, saving battery range. My Droid uses Verizon.

While driving, the LEAF’s navigation system uses GPS. If I want to listen to Pandora, my smartphone communicates with the LEAF via Bluetooth. When I park at a ChargePoint for public charging, the Coulomb ChargePoint uses RF to talk with my member smartcard. When charging, the ChargePoint uses various wireless carriers in different countries with protocols such as GPRS and CDMA. The charger even sends me a text when charging is completed or if someone disconnects my car.

Smart Grid Uses Wireless and Mesh Networks

A DOE study identified how we can charge 170 million electric cars in the U.S. before needing to add generation such as renewables, natural gas, nuclear, or coal. Charging needs to be done off-peak. With smart charging communications that is easy to do. I have preset charging my LEAF off peak. When I connect the charger, no electrons flow until the nighttime hour is reached. State utility regulators need to allow utilities A low rate for off-peak charging and higher for on-peak charging and electricity use. No benefits occur until utilities upgrade their old one-way grid communications to two-way smart grid.

As utilities install smart meters, such time of use (TOU) pricing and demand response become realities. Beyond what is visible to their customers, electric utilities are becoming more reliable and efficient with smart grid technology that communicates: advanced meters, smart transformers, sensors, distribution automation, and intelligent energy management.

When I charge and use electricity at home, my PG&E utility smart meter uses RF mesh technology to route the data along with sensor data so that they can manage the grid, collect billing information, and allow me to view home use through an internet browser.

As wireless carriers lower their rates to compete with mesh networks, other utilities take different approaches. Texas utility TNMP is including a CDMA modem in all of the 241,000 smart meters that it is installing.

Transformers and distributed automation are smarter so that sudden changes in load can be better managed and an outage in one location does not take down the neighborhood. SDG&E is charging thousands of electric vehicles with a smart grid.

SDG&E is installing smart transformers and distributed automation that more quickly isolates and handles problems. These devices communicate with centralized GIS and IT applications that keep everything running.

Duke Energy’s David Masters writes, “Duke Energy defines the digital grid as an end-to-end energy Internet powered by two-way digital technology. It is comprised of an Internet Protocol (IP) based, open standards communication network that allows for automation and the exchange of near real-time information as well as enabling the adoption of new technologies as they become available. Duke Energy’s digital grid will have more efficient and reliable transmission and distribution systems; it will leverage energy efficiency programs to reduce wasted energy; it will integrate more distributed energy resources into our grid and decrease carbon emissions.” Duke Energy is co-locating 3G and 4G cellular communication nodes with transformers. These WAN nodes communicate with RF and PLC to smart meters, charging stations, demand response appliances, street light systems, grid sensors and capacitor banks.

EPB, Chattanooga, Tennessee, not only delivers electricity to the home, it delivers broadband fiber optics for fast internet access and streaming video. While most utilities are slowly deploying smart grid, starting with smart meters, EPB installs a broadband router in the home with far more capability than a meter.

Our use of energy will get smarter as utilities fully-deploy smart grids and regulators encourage them share more information. For example, automakers are already demonstrating smart apps so that owners could program preferred charging to occur when high-levels of renewable energy is delivered to the grid, such as wind blowing at night. Smart apps and RE price incentives would encourage the growth of clean and safe energy.

Instead of firing-up dirty peaker plants on hot afternoons when air conditioning is blasting, a smart grid could draw power from utility fleets that are glad to sell power at premium rates. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) has been successfully tested. V2G is part of our future.

On October 20, utility and automotive executives will attend GTM and Greentech Media’s The Networked EV Conference  to review the details of the convergence of electric vehicles and smart grids. GTM has published a new research report – The Smart Utility Enterprise 2011-2015: IT Systems Architecture, Cyber Security and Market Forecast

The ongoing deployment of smart grid infrastructure (i.e., smart meters and distribution automation) in the U.S. is prompting utility strategists to re-evaluate their organizations’ back-end enterprise architectures in order to enable next-gen utility business and operational services, such as dynamic pricing, grid optimization, self-healing grids and renewables integration. Utilities are just now beginning to understand the implications of outfitting their dated enterprise architectures with current information (IT) and operations (OT) technologies required to offer next-gen smart grid applications.

It will take years for most utilities to deploy smart grids. The cost will be in the billions. The savings will be in the trillions as drivers use less foreign oil and as level demand and energy efficiency replace the need for new coal and nuclear power plants.

Growth is strong for electric vehicles, renewable energy, and smart grid. The growth of one benefits the other. With smart communications, we are enjoying efficient transportation, energy independence, and clean air.

Home Energy Management: Premature Jocularity

One of the hottest cleantech investment segments in recent years has been home energy management (HEM).  HEM technologies enable households to remotely and/or more wisely manage their energy use, enabling lower consumption for equivalent (or better) quality of life:  climate control, lighting, entertainment, cooking, etc.

In the space of just a week or so, two of the leading information technology giants — Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ:  GOOG) — announced last month that they were pulling the plug on their in-house HEM efforts — efforts that had been launched with great fanfare not long ago.

As reported in such postings as this one and that one and (more humorously) yet another one, Microsoft’s Hohm and Google’s PowerMeter will be discontinued due to lack of customer uptake. 

At best, HEM is an idea before its time, dependent upon smart meters and other so-called “smart grid” technologies to enable a lot of the highest-value functionality of HEM.  At worst, HEM is an idea whose time will never come — simply because most households simply don’t care that much about energy — and won’t spend a lot of time to save a few bucks on their energy bills, preferring to spend that incremental hour playing a video game or surfing social media. 

I’m inclined to the latter interpretation:  while energy management for commercial/institutional buildings can/will be a big deal, simply because the value at stake is significant and building-owners have sufficient profit-motivation to take action to improve financial results, energy management for homes will be a tougher play, due to constrained budgets and limited customer mindshare and appetite for taking action to save relatively few dollars.

Regardless, HEM continues to attract big bucks from outside investors.  iControl Networks just fetched over $50 million from such tech stalwarts as Cisco (NASDAQ:  CSCO) and Kleiner Perkins, and Siemens (NYSE:  SI) invested in Tendril at almost exactly the same time as Microsoft and Google announced their abandonment of HEM.

So, what does Google and Microsoft know that the others don’t?  I’m not exactly sure, but I can say with confidence from first-hand observation and experience that a lot of investment capital that is often referred to as “smart money”…isn’t.

Time will tell if any of these investments generate good returns, but the past and present hype about HEM feels premature, if not unwarranted.