The ability to put small-footprint sensors and information agents across the energy grid is creating myriad business opportunities, entrepreneurs said at the Clean Energy Ventures Summit in Austin this week.
The three-day event matched managers at early-stage companies with venture capitalists and utility managers. In a broad sense, clean energy startups benefit from intense investor interest in the field, but have the same problems as other new companies: a lack of funds to hire marketing and sales people, risk-averse customers, and a tangle of software standards.
Green Building Studio, Inc. (Santa Rosa, Calif.) develops software which helps architects design energy-efficient buildings, said CEO John Kennedy. With sales of about $1.25 million last, Green Building – like many of the startups at the summit – is seeking several million dollars in additional funding to expand its sales and marketing efforts. To that end, the company has signed a marketing agreement with AutoDesk, described as a leading vendor in the sustainable design software market.
Roland Schoetke, CEO of Optimal Technologies, Inc., said his company has two shipping software products, Aempfast to improve the efficiency of utility grids, and Surefast, for building optimization. “We can work with utility companies to find an additional 10 percent of grid capacity by making the grid smarter,” Schoetke said.
Creating a two-way energy grid -- which can both distribute power to customers and receive power generated by users equipped with solar panels or other energy generating equipment – will require an energy bus complemented by an information network.
Silver Springs Network (San Mateo, Calif.) has 80 people working with utilities to help “get meters talking to transformers talking to homes,” said Eric Dresselhuys, vice president of markets and products.
“The information bus has to complement the energy bus, which creates an explosion in software,” he said. While the Internet Protocol provides a good foundation, the industry is caught in a mesh of standards that make deployment unnecessarily complex, Dresselhuys said.
In a panel on the utility of the future, Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of Austin Energy, said “I’m not sure we are adequately prepared to have thousands of energy sources going on to the grid. That will take a lot of IT and switching resources to move on and off the energy bus. I’m not sure we have an adequate plan for the utility of the future.”
Robert Howard, a vice president at Pacific Gas and Electric, said “in the utility of the future, every device will be identified” as a node on the power network. Every plug will have an IP address, and the estimated 15,000 solar power installations in California will be addressable nodes on the grid.
While utilities such as Austin Energy and PG&E are taking positive steps, consultant Alison Silverstein said “they are outlyers. Overall, the utilities are grossly risk averse, and they don’t trust the idea of two-way systems.”