Given the growing interest in a low-carbon economy and renewable energy, it would follow that when it comes to adding solar and wind power to the electrical grid, more is better.
Not exactly. It turns out that not all electricity is equal, at least from the grid’s point of view. The grid can't recognize the incoming electricity from solar panels and wind turbines in such a way that enables it to signal fossil fuel power plants to produce less electricity. As a result, the grid gets overloaded, with potentially disastrous effects. Grid operators must limit or even halt the amount of renewable energy connected into the system.
What you end up with is the situation Hawaii experienced earlier this year. After years of rapid growth in solar, the Aloha State slowed down new installations amid worries that more solar would destabilize the grid.
Our aging grid infrastructure is notoriously unreliable, and states such as Hawaii and California are feeling the early growing pains as more solar and wind installations are coming online among homes, businesses and utilities. As policies shift to encourage renewables, and solar costs reach grid parity, threats to grid stability are only getting worse.
Most proposed smart grid solutions require overhauling our grid infrastructure, so the transition — to enable two-way energy flows and increase grid stability — has been slow and expensive. As a result, most utilities and regulators are unprepared to handle increased distributed generation, a situation where energy consumers become producers and communities become more self-sufficient.
However, a startup that has been operating somewhat under the radar believes it has found the answer. Apparent, Inc., has built a suite of technologies which, in effect, rounds out the profile of solar power so the grid can recognize and use it as identical to conventional power. It’s a bit of a magic trick that, if it succeeds, could be a game-changer — not just in the world of renewables, but for energy overall.
Enhancing, not destabilizing, the grid
We had a chance to view Apparent's sophisticated platform, which aims to make renewable energy an equal, more stable partner in the electric grid. The company has developed the first microgrid inverter (MGi for short) to turn “real energy” into “apparent energy” on demand. The company’s name reflects its secret sauce: "apparent" energy is electricity in its most complete form.
Apparent’s MGi hardware and software integrates into existing grid infrastructure to improve overall efficiency and stability as more renewables come online. It also forms a smart, local and adjustable microgrid within the larger electrical grid. The MGi is meant to improve the efficiency of energy transportation throughout the grid by dropping the voltage required to push energy through power lines.
As the company’s website puts it:
Apparent’s patented and breakthrough technologies enable renewable energy assets to extract more energy from renewable sources, and produce apparent energy (consisting of both real and reactive energy) as needed. Renewable energy assets employing Apparent’s technology operate on parity with traditional energy resources. Which means renewable energy assets can fully integrate with the grid to participate in markets previously limited to traditional systems.
This is geeky stuff, but hugely significant. The technology allows solar and wind producers to participate in a wider range of market opportunities, including integrating solar into residential, commercial, and utility-scale installations. It effectively creates a smart grid without the need to overhaul existing infrastructure or regulatory barriers.
Apparent represents “a major opportunity to change markets, to enable technology to do something that no one else was even talking about doing, which is to elevate solar,” the company’s chairman and CEO, George Salah (pictured above), told us from the company’s Novato, Calif., headquarters.
A legacy of game-changing
Salah came to Apparent last year from Google, where he was employee No. 35. For 14 years, Salah headed real estate and workplace services at Google, where he was responsible for the company’s facilities worldwide. Soon after he joined Google in 1999, he and cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin shaped the company's culture, as the employee base grew past 50,000 — and from one Silicon Valley office to 20 million square feet across 125 cities in 55 countries.
Salah is well known for his strong focus on creating healthy buildings for Googlers. He has been a vociferous advocate of transparency in building materials as a means of identifying unwanted chemicals, and leveraged Google’s brand and buying power to spur change in the building and facilities markets.
At Google, Salah became one of Apparent’s early customers and advocates. He joined its board in 2012 and became CEO last fall. In Apparent, Salah saw a major opportunity, one at least as game-changing as transforming markets for buildings and workspaces.
“This technology represents a major opportunity to make change happen today and to benefit the world of energy, which benefits not just the utilities and the energy generators, but the consumers, all of us," he said.
Optimizing electricity’s 'three-legged stool'
The need for Apparent’s microgrid inverter stems from the complexities of electric power. You can think of electricity as a "three-legged stool" consisting of real power (measured in watts, or W), reactive power (measured in volt-ampere reactive, or VAR) and apparent power (measured in volt-amperes, or VA).
Real power is what you typically think of when you say “power” — it's the energy provided to and distributed by the grid. It must overcome the reactive power of the system, the background energy movement in an alternating current electrical system (such as a power plant) arising from the production of electric and magnetic fields. While reactive power does no work at the load, it heats the wires and wastes energy, increasing energy losses and as a result, limiting the capacity of cables and lines in the grid. Conductors, transformers and generators must be sized to carry the total current, not just the current that does useful work.
When you produce solar energy, you’re producing only one of the three "legs," that is, real power. That’s enough to send power to the grid, but it cannot affordably overcome the reactive power of the system. As a result, the grid becomes unstable as more renewables come online.
That’s where apparent power comes in, as the bridge that's needed to balance the other two "legs." It’s what makes the real energy compensate for the resistance of the reactive energy in the grid (and is measured as the magnitude of the vector sum of real and reactive power).
The challenge, says Salah: “How do you take it from just one leg to all three?”
To solve the problem, Apparent provides a hardware device (connected to both production and consumption sides) and software platform to enable real-time decision-making and energy trading digitally. It communicates with the grid bi-directionally, understanding what the grid needs, millisecond by millisecond. It informs the device and platform about how to maintain loads among solar production and grid behavior, grid production, impedance and energy direction. In essence, Apparent’s technologies put renewables on a level playing field with conventional power within our existing grid.
Stefan Matan, Apparent’s co-founder and chief technical officer, summarized it this way: “In order to enable more renewables to penetrate the current grid, you have to have a platform where human behavior, energy production behavior and energy transportation behavior are integrated into the system and put exactly what you need when you need it, when you use it and when you produce it.”
Aloha, green power
Matan showed us a demonstration. Three live, digital displays visualized the electricity output from a series of solar installations on the Big Island of Hawaii. Matan issued a command at each installation, and the system indicated onsite solar power — real power — being produced, with everything else coming from a diesel generator. Less than 20 minutes after Matan switched the solar installations over to Apparent’s technology, they increased production by 30 percent using the same resources.
As Matan explained: “The grid knows what the load looks like because we provided that information bundle and we say, ‘Okay, here it is. We can produce this solar on the site, so back off your diesel generator.’ That means that they’re not going to burn one gallon of fuel because now we’re producing it.”
Matan is a veteran of the energy world. An electrical engineer by training, he worked on state-run Chernobyl-style nuclear reactors in Bulgaria before moving to the United States. “That’s when I saw an inverter for the very first time,” said Matan. “An inverter is actually a power supply in reverse. And when you see something like this plugged into the grid, you see that it’s really a renewable energy generator and it’s terrifying for the person who understands it for several reasons.”
Salah is quick to point out that while photovoltaic solar is a prime focus of Apparent’s work, “this is not just about solar. It is about the smart grid. It’s about the intelligence that is inherent in all of the communications that need to happen to create the ability for the consumer and the energy producers to come together in a way that they’ve never been able to come to before.”
Top image of George Salah via Tony Cane-Honeysett