Heila Technologies has built an impressive suite of microgrid solutions aimed at improving the resiliency and automation of microgrids in connected and islanded modes. The foundation of the Heila solution is the Heila IQ unit, which adds a cloud-connected brain to distributed energy generation (DEG) assets on a microgrid.
We first heard about the Heila IQ optimization system from Craig Wooster at Stone Edge Farms, where many bleeding edge microgrid technologies are being hardened into production-grade solutions. The microgrid tech at Stone Edge Farms was put to the test in last year’s fires that blazed through the heart of wine country and forced the evacuation of the farm.
In doing so, the fire put the Stone Edge Farm microgrid to the test and the Heila IQ optimization system was the star of the show and allowed the system to continue functioning in island mode with no input from the outside — or the inside — for a full week.
To learn more about the system, CleanTechnica spoke with Heila Technologies co-founder and CEO Francisco Morocz about Heila’s history, products, and where he is taking the company over the next few years.
Francisco shared that Heila Technologies was founded by alumni from the engineering and business schools at MIT. A core group of guys saw the potential of renewables and were digging around for a specific niche or problem that had yet to be solved. Heila’s lead engineer, then-PhD student at MIT Jorge Elizondo was working on microgrid technologies for his PhD and found that most of the technologies being used in production microgrid solutions had originally been designed for the grid itself. They worked, but came with trade-offs that brought a lot of issues of their own to the party.
As part of his work on microgrids, Jorge connected with Craig Wooster at Stone Edge Farms (SEF) where, as an intern for Craig’s company, Wooster Engineering, he identified use cases for the product that would eventually take shape as the Heila IQ optimization solution. The first prototype was installed at SEF in July of 2017.
Francisco shared that, “At some point during the fires they were having in Sonoma, we had to island the [SEF] microgrids using Heila tech that had only been developed about two months earlier.” A lot of the core engineering on what is now the Heila IQ optimization solution was done by Jorge at SEF and was quickly vetted in realtime when the fires hit last year.
The Heila IQ Optimization Solution
The Heila IQ was designed to integrate different distributed energy generation (DEG) sources and storage capacity into a microgrid. This can be a rooftop solar array, wind turbine, grid scale battery installation, or a hydrogen fuel cell stack with storage, but for the microgrid to work, they all need to play nicely together, as if playing together in a symphony.
To do this with traditional microgrid solutions, they need to be programmed specifically for the DEGs that are being integrated AND for the specific microgrid they are being integrated into. That’s a lot of additional work, schedule, and cost to build a microgrid and to add to it as needs change down the line.”Optimizing the [Distributed Energy Generation assets on a microgrid] to work at the same time is a very complex problem,” Francisco shared.
On the hardware side, Heila Technologies took a different approach by developing hardware that could connect to any controls hardware to allow communication to flow between the devices on the network. In a world where proprietary connectors are the standard, Heila wanted to build a device that was able to connect to anything, so it did.
To further complicate matters, each DEG effectively speaks a different language on the network, meaning that all microgrid integration solutions have to translate what’s being said as well. In its new hardware unit, the Heila team built what it calls the ‘protocol conversion network’.
Francisco shared that this is the key to getting various DEGs to play nicely together, “Our hardware solves the problem of the hardware itself and the protocol conversion framework that we have inside the box solves the problem of the different protocols. We’re actually able to speak most of the industrial protocols in the industry – it doesn’t matter.”
Achieving this seamless translation of various communication protocols was no small feat. Francisco shared that it took a significant amount of work for the team to map out each protocol in detail, allowing the system to translate between them. This started with the devices being used at Stone Edge Farms and is constantly being updated as new protocols are added.
As of today, the system can interface with DEGs that speak protocols like Modbus, CANbus, and analog signal types and even stretches into the demand-side of the equation with integrations with some motors, HVAC systems, and water pumps.
Benefits of Heila IQ
The Heila IQ optimization solution was designed to streamline microgrid deployment and to make them more resilient to change. Heila summarizes those objectives in three simple bullet points:
- Simple Deployment – Cuts integration costs by replacing expensive and time consuming customization with plug n’ play solution.
- Modular – Reduces engineering cost by automatically re-configuring the operation and optimization of microgrids when assets are added or removed.
- Self-Learning – It learns over time, driving the microgrid to reach and maintain peak performance.
Moving forward, Francisco and the team at Heila Technologies are working hard to continue to develop more products to lower the bar and improve the resiliency of microgrids. They are working with a handful of C&I customers about potential pilots using Heila’s products.
He shared that, “One of the big challenges as a startup, especially in the energy industry, is the expectation – and a rightful expectation of the users – of a system that is robust enough to last 20 years and actually provide energy all the time.” The grid is an extremely complex – perhaps the most complex – machine ever developed by humans, and bringing new solutions into that mix have to bring with them the same durability that grid operators have come to expect from companies whose products are foundational to the grid of today.
Heila’s focus on microgrids is zeroed in on tying more low-carbon energy generation to the grid:
“We are big advocates of distributed generation. On the social benefit of things, it’s important to discern microgrids where you just want to put natural gas turbines or diesel generators and CHP from low carbon microgrids. It’s very easy to say that microgrids are going to help with renewables penetration and the reduction of carbon emissions but we have to be really good at the controls systems if we want to manage and make renewables cost effective for people. When you start adding renewables [to microgrids], it can be a really expensive proposition which is what we’re trying to help with.”
“At the end of the day, microgrids are still growing. More and more people are seeing the value they can add, especially in a time of natural disasters,” Francisco shared. Heila is also looking beyond building standalone products at the potential of integrating their solutions directly into some of the most dynamic units attached to a microgrid – batteries. “We are in discussions now with some battery companies about integrating our technology into their battery products.”
Heila’s vision is to build the grid of tomorrow with a customer-centric approach and based on renewable energy, distributed intelligent assets, and a flexible structure. To learn more about Heila Technologies, head over to the official website, follow them on Twitter or send any specific inquiries to them directly via email.
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