A question that many in the tech world are asking is: How can we make the electricity grid more efficient and resilient? Tech companies like DEPsys, Greenbird, Cuculus, Venios, and Utilidata are firms with solutions to this question — forging the way in transforming the power grid and modernizing the role of the Distribution System Operator (DSO). To elaborate more on DSOs, we talk with venture capital firm Statkraft Ventures‘ founder, Dr. Matthias Dill, on why it has invested in smart-grid startups. And we spoke with founders Michael De Vivo and Thorsten Heller of DEPsys and Greenbird respectively, to find out how DSOs can be more than infrastructure and why that’s so important.
New technology and growing demands on today’s power-grid system mean that the infrastructure must adjust — we simply cannot expect a grid designed more than a hundred years ago to adequately meet today’s energy needs. With the influx of solar power and electric vehicles, energy generation and consumption no longer adhere to traditional supply-demand roles. And as these roles shift, so must the way we distribute energy adjust to new challenges and growing demands. This is where DSOs come in. The Distribution System Operator (DSO) is the connection between energy generation and consumers. In a non-traditional market, with self-consumption and generation of energy changing the infrastructure of the grid, so must the role of the DSO modernize and adapt.
Both DEPsys and Greenbird are working to update the way DSOs manage the grid — making them smarter and more capable of maintaining a balance between generation and consumption. Switzerland-based DEPsys, founded in 2012 by Michael De Vivo, has a total funding of $5.3M and creates software to help DSOs monitor the grid in real-time, and to control the system. Thorsten Heller founded Greenbird in 2010, and the firm works to digitally transform utilities and connect them with big data. The company is based in Norway and has a total funding of $4.6M. In our discussion, we find out how its technology is revolutionizing the industry, and hear insights from Dr. Matthias Dill as to why Statkraft Ventures has invested in its work.
What is a DSO and why is it important?
Michael De Vivo, DEPsys: The DSO is the Distribution System Operator, the link between central energy generation and the consumers at the edge of the power grid. Its traditional role is to distribute the energy to all the end-users. In an electrical grid, there must be a permanent balance between generation and consumption to guarantee a stable supply. In the old world, the generation was adjusted to the changing needs of the consumers.
The energy transition tries to replace traditional, central nuclear and carbon-based energy with decentralized renewable resources, such as photovoltaic (PV) installations. At the same time, it wants to replace traditional cars with electric vehicles (EV). This disturbs the generation-consumption balance, as PV installations generate energy when the sun is shining, and not when energy is needed. In the same sense, EVs want to be charged when their owners come home from work, not when most energy is produced.
Self-consumption of house owners or self-consumption communities try to generate, store and consume electricity locally, changing the role of the DSO today and tomorrow. It will be the link between producers and consumers, making energy exchanges between neighbors possible.
Thorsten Heller, Greenbird: DSO stands for Distribution Service Operators or the grid company. DSO are undergoing a huge transformation, driven by the 4 Ds: decentralization, deregulation, decentralization, and decarbonization.
More and more local production, changing load and consumption profiles, electrification of transport, IoT or big data are forcing DSOs to become a platformed digital to stay relevant and in business.
Tell us a little bit about your company and how you are working with DSOs?
Michael De Vivo, DEPsys: The DSO challenge is the management of the new power grid — the balance between generation and consumption in a highly dynamic environment. For this, DEPsys develops GridEye, a system that identifies the network conditions in real-time, and that orchestrates all the stakeholders of a local area, such as PV installations, charging infrastructure, and energy storage, with the goal of a stable and safe power supply for everybody. In this respect, DEPsys is a supplier of the modern DSO that provides a toolbox of applications for monitoring, analysis, planification, asset management, outage reduction, network control, and other needs.
Thorsten Heller, Greenbird: Greenbird is a software company headquartered in Oslo, Norway and provides with Metercloud a big data integration platform managing the data flows accelerating the digital transformation for utilities. Founded in 2010, Greenbird has now 42 employees and serves more than 80 clients in the Nordics, Europe and Middle East / Asia.
Can you provide a real-life example of how you’re implementing the technology?
Michael De Vivo, DEPsys: Reality within DSOs is far behind all the fancy developments for the future. DEPsys sees two main use cases in the market today. The smart grid, the network of the future, currently means monitoring for network transparency for a large portion of the market.. GridEye field units are installed at strategic network nodes to measure the state of the grid. Over an IoT platform, the information is sent to a central system with a user interface displaying the values graphically. This helps the DSO to visualize his grid and to analyze the short, mid and long-term behaviors.
The second use case is punctual voltage stabilization. If PV installations generate more energy than necessary, the voltage in the network rises. Most grids are today still relatively stable, but they can have voltage issues at certain times. Based on the concept of edge computing, GridEye field units detect this unbalance and can act on generation, on controllable loads or storage elements, to rebalance the system.
Thorsten Heller, Greenbird: Smarthub is a a Norwegian alliance operating a smart metering and smart grid infrastructure for 10 utilities in a «* as a Service» model. Metercloud is the information backbone for Smarthub handling all integrations and data flows between the utilities’ core systems and Smarthub’s centralized infrastructure. Using Metercloud, Smarthub can operate the AMI infrastructure more efficiently and provide add value data insight services to their clients.
What impact can DSOs have today?
Thorsten Heller, Greenbird: DSO is responsible to manage and operate the grid infrastructure and therefore is always one of the major players in the energy system.
Michael De Vivo, DEPsys: Traditionally, the DSOs owned the distribution of the energy which generated their revenue. They have and will have a difficult time because the traditional revenue streams break away due to the fact that energy prices drop, and that prosumers generate their own electricity. Today, they have to lay the foundation for new business models and for a stable and dynamic network for the future. For EVs, they have to build the charging infrastructure for the future of mobility, making sure that the underlying grid can actually deliver the energy that is needed.
How do you envision it will make an impact in the future?
Thorsten Heller, Greenbird: Using Metercloud, utilities are empowered to become a platform operator for innovation and the smart city. From being an operator of a commoditized infrastructure, utilities might become the operator of a platform for smart and sustainable innovation.
Michael De Vivo, DEPsys: DSOs will move away from their pure distribution role, from the link that they build between generation and consumption. In the future, they will be an enabler, making energy exchange possible at different levels, between consumers and producers, between neighbors, between community members, but also across longer distances. Electricity will be the main energy vector in the decarbonized world, and everybody will be able to generate and sell electricity in a very dynamic and independent manner. The distribution network will have to absorb all this energy, which is only possible with intelligent orchestration systems, such as GridEye.
Why is Statkraft Ventures investing in smart-grid startups?
Dr. Matthias Dill, Statkraft Ventures: Power-grid topics tend to be overlooked by the generalist VCs. And for good reasons, since this segment needs very specific know-how both regarding technology and regulation. But for us as a sector focused fund it made sense to build up this expertise. And, from a fundamental perspective on the energy sector, the power-grid is a very relevant search-field for us.
More and more distributed power-generation (such as solar and wind) and EV-charging is connected to the power grid, with very intermittent generation-profiles and load-profiles. This creates a big challenge for the power-grid infrastructure that often has been designed hundred years ago. So there is a great and urgent need for investment in grid-infrastructure and the exiting question is what part of these billions will be invested in copper-cables and what part will be invested in smart technology. We see many great new technologies that can make the grid more efficient, more resilient and add new functionalities all at the same time. And it is unique timing these days: entrepreneurs can use technologies that have already been developed in other sectors (like IoT, data-analytics, cloud-stack), so it can be very capital-efficient today to build new firms with deep technology for the energy sector.
What specifically about these two companies, DEPsys and Greenbird, excites you?
Statkraft Ventures: Besides the fact that we like the topic in general there are additional aspects.
When we invested in DEPsys and Greenbird we were very impressed by the founders. Both Thorsten Heller and Michael DeVivo had very deep domain and technology expertise and had managed to transfer this into very unique products. As a VC we like the notion of being 10-times better. Greenbirds automated integration platform reduced the time for integration in smart-meter projects by more than a factor of 10 while offering the DSOs the agility of adding new functionalities on existing smart-meters in the future. DEPSys is also second to none: they can monitor and optimize the power-grid without needing to know its topology. Thereby they make the implementation faster and easier by an order of magnitude.
In both firms we had invested about two years ago and we are really happy to see that they did develop from local start-ups in Norway and Switzerland to global player that roll out their solutions with large DSOs in many countries.
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