ABB Is Building The Distributed, Resilient Grid Of The Future, One Business At A Time

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ABB is known as one of the global leaders in electrical infrastructure, so when it starts talking about the digital transformation and the grid of the future, our ears perked up. We connected with the guy steering the ABB ship when it comes to leading the digital revolution, Rob Massoudi, about the transition that’s currently underway in grids around the world and pulled back the curtain on what the future grid might look like.

Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

Distributed Generation And Storage

The world of electrons is increasingly being supplemented with and driven by a world of bits and bytes as grid infrastructure and hardware companies pivot to add a fleet of IT professionals working to tap into the power of data for their customers. Rob shared that the push is part of a larger move to, “align the data value chain with the electrical.”

One of the key trends ABB sees in the market is that renewables have brought with them the democratization of electricity as, “PV, solar, and wind are moving closer to the edge” of the grid. This can easily be seen in the residential rooftop solar revolution which has allowed homeowners to generate their own clean electricity for the first time in history at the scale we’re seeing today.

This shift isn’t only happening with residential customers, but, “it’s actually moving closer in to the commercial and industrial (C&I) customers as well.” The transition to local renewable generation and increasingly, energy storage, in C&I is not a mainstream trend, but is seeing increased interest as the cost of renewables and the potential for energy storage is realized in early markets around the world.

The addition of electric fleet vehicles are playing a role in the adoption of energy storage in the C&I space as overnight fleet charging drastically shifts the demand profile. Rob shared that, “what we’re seeing is that their profiles are changing from 100s of kWhs to MWhs” with EV fleets. This is creating a situation where companies are looking for ways to optimize their overall energy consumption rather than looking for ways to improve resiliency or sufficiency. “ABB has a suite of products and solutions,” Rob shared, and dove into a case study to illustrate his point.

Case Study

ABB was recently approached to help a major fleet in the commercial delivery space with over 2,300 facilities around the world, with an average of 100-150 vehicles per facility. Some of the vehicles are heavy vehicles like tractors that store 500 kWhs up to 1 MWh per vehicle. At the other end of the spectrum, they have vehicles that run around 75 to 125 kWhs or 100 miles per day. All of those vehicles come in at night to charge and regardless of how big the proverbial pipe is to the facility, that’s going to put a hurt on things.

Some of those vehicles like the 500 kWh and 1 MWh vehicles have surplus energy at night that they want to power the other trucks or to power the facility. “At each facility, they’re looking at an increase of several hundred kWhs or MWhrs,” Rob shared.

Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

They’re faced with a brutal increase in demand and usage charges at each facility, and looking at an increase of several hundred kWhs up to 2 MWhs per facility. At the end of the day, they just need to make sure their vehicles are all sufficiently charged in the morning and ready to work. Beyond the base use case of balancing the load pulled from the grid, some of the locations with storage installed are able to use the stored energy to, “potentially trade on the market.”

Rob is in a unique position to see some of these cutting edge installations because ABB has all of the hardware and software solutions to stand up the solutions. That’s not bragging, there simply aren’t many companies out there that can do this kind of thing today, at such a scale. Rob shared that solutions like this leverage ABB’s 125+ years of experience in building critical electrical infrastructure like transformers, switch gear, controllers, EV chargers, software, and the intelligence that brings in all the other info.

A solution with holistic internal electrical management with a connection to the grid is effectively a microgrid, but with the added complexities of balancing power flows in just the right ways, according to the needs of the business. “We understand this electric value chain,” and ABB is leveraging its mastery of electrical infrastructure to add data-fueled insights to maximize the opportunities presented by energy storage and distributed renewable.

Data Unlocks Hidden Potential

Building on its long history in hardware, ABB is leaning heavily into software and data solutions as its engineers push the envelope to bring the worlds of their customers together with that of the utility, with energy storage and distributed renewables blending somewhere in between. Rob shared that ABB sees data as the new engine for growth for the company, presenting new opportunities in energy management, analytics, assets, health of the assets, asset performance — all of which have the potential to add immense value to customers.

For example, on the customer front, Rob shared that this data translates into meaningful improvements in the form of control over electric vehicle charging rates, vehicle characteristics that tell fleet managers how well the vehicles can perform. Pulling in weather information helps fleet managers understand the impact of weather on electric vehicle and energy storage battery performance, which translates into higher or lower minimum storage requirements, higher or lower costs, etc.

Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

Things get even more exciting when you start looking into the complexities and opportunities that are embedded in the more complex business loads. These come in a variety of forms, including material handling systems, IT equipment, lighting, which Rob shared are really at the cutting edge of electricity conservation that translates into cost savings for customers.

In addition to control at the lower level, that data is also rolled up to an aggregate level to provide summaries for company leadership to help them to see where savings and opportunities really are in this brave new world of business. For example, “in Geneva, we’re using all this data to optimize the charging and scheduling of buses.”

Looking To The Future

With all this talk about pushing past the meter with its tech in the C&I space, I was eager to hear if this was also happening for homeowners, in the residential space. “We very successfully launched our home automation technology in Germany and are bringing in to North America soon.”

The process takes time, but Rob shared that controlling massive loads within the home not only has the potential to make life easier for homeowners, but can also be a source of revenue by throttling discretional loads like the HVAC system. This isn’t breakthrough tech for the industry, but is an exciting space for ABB as it leans into the home with new feelers, through a suite of home automation solutions.

ABB is also extending its product lines into the electrical panels of homes with intelligent circuit panels that give homeowners more control over their homes’ energy usage. Intelligent, connected electrical breakers also have the potential to give utilities more control over the demand in the home, in exchange for lower electricity pricing. There are a number of exciting possibilities that tech like this opens up that ABB’s existing relationships with utilities, electricity distribution, transmission and generation entities facilitate.

Electric Vehicles

The transition to distributed renewables is happening in parallel to the mass adoption of electric vehicles. This is on display most prominently in the sales figures for the Tesla Model 3 which is cutting the path for electric vehicles into the mainstream, thanks to the foresight and bold actions taken by the team at Tesla. That foresight has resulted in an impressive network of over 11,000 Tesla Supercharging points for owners to use to charge up while on the go.

Looking outside the walled garden of Tesla and its Supercharging network, the world of public charging is a pretty dismal place, with even the most well supported cities boasting only a handful of the 50kW DC fast chargers. Even these are already looking a bit long in the tooth compared to Tesla’s existing network of 125kW Superchargers and the new standard of 150-350kW public chargers.

Rob shared that the team at ABB took a step back and looked at EV charging deployments to see what the opportunities and threats were around EV charging, even looking a few years out to take into account the potential impact of autonomous driving on public EV charging networks. They found that the US is clearly lagging behind Europe and China when it comes to public DC fast charging EV charging deployments.

ABB found that, “China is very aggressively addressing this market and not only in terms of incentives.” The Chinese government is making a “very strong investment in infrastructure,” with a significant focus on the ‘new energy infrastructure’ that’s dominated by renewables and energy storage paired with electric vehicles.

The surge in investment in public EV charging infrastructure is happening organically as a result of domestic manufacturing mandates that currently require that 12% of all vehicles manufactured are plug-in vehicles. The future will see that number growing even further, on the journey up to 20% in 2020. These mandates have already made the Chinese market the top plug-in vehicle market in the world, attracting a lot of money and innovation for the electric vehicle and autonomous driving segments, according to Rob.

“For now, the US has the advantage on the autonomous side…and potentially in electric vehicles,” he shared, but the sheer amount of money and investment will likely see that shift to China in the next few years. Rob shared that, “part of that is due to the regulation,” but that “we just don’t see that in the US,” where “there’s just a huge amount of regulatory uncertainty.”

His sentiments echo what we’ve seen here in the US as investors continue to throttle back committing to anything long term as policies from previous administrations are turned over in favor of what are largely seen to be unsustainable short-term policies.

All photos by Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

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