Published on February 14th, 2020 | by Kyle Field0
Tesla Steps Into The Utility Space With New Grid Controller Patent
February 14th, 2020 by Kyle Field
Tesla Developing A Scalable Whole-House Energy Management System: New Grid Controller Manages Production, Storage, & Consumption
This week, Tesla locked in a new patent for a distributed electrical grid management system, with capability to control everything from massive grid-scale energy storage installations down to your washing machine to keep everything humming along nicely.
The new patent is a natural extension of Tesla’s Grid Controller solution that manages grid-scale assets, but the new solution takes it a step further by folding in Tesla’s in-home solutions, and then some. The result proposed in the new patent is an end-to-end distributed grid management system with the capability to identify and manage assets on the grid, in businesses, and in homes as a means of balancing the grid more effectively. It leverages each asset on the grid as a part of the overall system.
One Ring To Rule Them All
At its core, the system establishes a hierarchy of stacked parent-child assets, with each asset looking upstream to get the most current set of instructions from the Grid Controller. The Grid Controller (A in the diagram below) has visibility of all the energy generation and storage assets within its control, whether they be solar farms, wind farms, natural gas peaker units, pumped hydro storage, or even your home rooftop solar installation.
Think about this central Grid Controller as your local utility today. They look at all of the assets on the grid that generate and store power and do their best to keep it all in balance. It is no easy task, as the consumption of electricity and availability of electricity on the grid must be kept in perfect balance in real time, all the time. When I plug in both of our electric vehicles at 6.6 kW, the utility has to find a way to make up the extra 13.2 kW of power — for as long as I need it. Scale that up to a massive range of assets in businesses, homes, manufacturing plants, and the like and you start to get an idea of the challenge utilities deal with every day.
For decades, utility customers have simply been consumers of electricity, but with the introduction of behind-the-meter solar panels and wind turbines, utilities had to cope with customers that could be consuming or producing power at any point in the day, with no control over what they were actually doing. Net metering, self-generation connection agreements, and special interconnection agreements attempted to mitigate the impact of these assets, but the utilities are still largely in the dark when it comes to seeing, let alone controlling, these distributed generation assets.
In the last 5 years, as the price of lithium-ion batteries has fallen off a cliff, energy storage has started making its way into homes and businesses around the world. Batteries promise to alleviate some of the pressure distributed generation assets place on the grid, but also bring new challenges to the table. In most cases, the customer gets to choose how they want to use their battery. For our two Tesla Powerwalls, I can choose to use them to soak up my own solar production when it is least valuable to the grid and use it back when the utility wants to charge me top dollar for it. I can also just soak up all my own production for maximized self-consumption.
From a utility perspective, having thousands of distributed batteries generally looks like help, as the utility can then use pricing changes, time-of-use plans, and similar incentives to shape customer behavior for a healthier overall grid. In this scenario, distributed energy storage assets help the grid, but they aren’t being leveraged to their full potential, as most utility pricing schemes are blunt tools applied to lazy customers who don’t really care enough to spend time managing their energy storage on a daily basis to save a few bucks here and there.
Creating a standardized communication protocol to allow utilities to have bi-directional communication with appliances in the homes of customers is a game changer for homeowners and utilities. This new patent lays out the blueprint for how that could work and speaks to Tesla’s direction with its future grid and in-home products. Tesla is already playing in the grid services space, but this takes the capability to a new level, with even more potential revenue opportunities.
Visibility Into The Home
Tesla’s solution dives straight into the home with this new set of hierarchical controllers that go into the home to not only monitor home energy usage, but to manage it as well. Tesla has experience in this space, but the current in-home solution leaves a lot to be desired. Tesla’s solutions already monitor solar production, energy storage, and grid storage, but only offer rudimentary controls for homeowners to optimize the overall energy usage profile of the home because of one important disconnect: the current solution cannot monitor or manage the usage profile of the loads in the home.
Today, Tesla uses Neurio’s energy monitoring solution, but word on the street is the company is working on its own bottom-up energy monitoring solution that would give the company visibility into the usage of specific assets in the home without the need to install additional hardware on each unit. This new patent takes the obvious step to the next level, with the introduction of smart controllers that would not only tell Tesla’s system what the usage was for each unit, but give Tesla control over the consumption of those loads in the home.
Today, Tesla’s implementation of Neurio’s energy monitoring solution is very high level, only looking at the entire home, solar production, energy storage, and grid usage. Modern energy monitoring solutions like Neurio, Sense, and others already take these individual signals and disaggregate their constituents, identifying unique energy consumers based on their fingerprints. For example, if the home refrigerator pulses on for 3 minutes every hour with a low draw for the rest of the day, the monitoring can uniquely identify that device and parse it out from the single home energy consumption signal.
Dynamic Load Management
Expect Tesla to match the capability of existing home energy monitors and to take things to the next level with a suite of hardware that extends reach into control over devices throughout the home. Tesla can do this with some of the loads in the home that it has control over today, such as EV charging of its vehicles. Many Tesla owners use Tesla’s Wall Connectors to charge their vehicles, but regardless of the wall charger used with a Tesla, the vehicle itself is already fully connected and intelligent enough to allow for its charging profile to be dynamically adjusted to optimize the home or the broader utility grid.
A logical first step for Tesla is to implement its own homegrown monitoring solution in a set of early adopters or employees. As the basic signals required for its app are very high level and easily achieved, the next-generation monitoring solution could even be developed in realtime with customers in the field. I mean, who actually cracks open their electrical panels to see what’s going on under the hood (other than me) anyway?
From there, Tesla can perfect and tune the signal disaggregation software to parse out the big loads as it develops the necessary controller hardware to tackle the major loads in the home one at a time. Hell, this may even be the catalyst for Tesla to finally develop the Tesla HVAC system Elon Musk teased when he was on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Believe it or not, he did actually do more than just take a hollow hit from Joe’s blunt after gulping down whiskey on the show.
In the new patent, Tesla shows how a signal from the local utility (the arrow coming down from the top in the image below) would send a signal to a gateway device in the home. Tesla’s existing hardware for the Powerwall already includes two such gateways that serve as the admittedly underutilized brain for the systems today. With the new system, these gateways would then connect to downstream generation devices (Tesla Solarglass Roof, rooftop solar system, etc.), storage devices (Tesla Powerwall, sonnen ecoLinx, LG RESU, etc.), and load devices.
The washing machine may strike some as a curious inclusion, but it is actually a very insightful one. If Tesla would have simply used electric vehicles as the example of the load devices, the entire system could be implemented with no new hardware. Stretching beyond high-usage items like HVAC systems, pool heaters, EV chargers, and electric dryers to washing machines speaks to the scope of loads Tesla is looking to optimize.
Imagine dropping a load of laundry into the washing machine and simply letting the house decide when it was cheapest/best for the grid/lowest emissions to run it? At its core, the solution simply takes demand response to the next logical level by extending it deep into the home. Rolling all of these load devices into a larger system that not only sees grid assets but the ability to dynamically manage them is immensely powerful.
The Utility Of The Future
Managing air conditioners and washing machines might not sound interesting on the surface, but this new patent represents a massive step that builds on Tesla’s existing mastery of the grid and in-home assets into the completely new businesses for Tesla of running an entire end-to-end electrical grid.
The writing is on the wall and the next logical step for Tesla is to either take over an existing utility or launch a similarly comprehensive suite of grid management solutions for utilities. But the truth is, if Tesla is already performing the role of the utility and making suggestions for doing it even better, why not just skip the middle man and get rid of the utility?
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