Revenge Of The Virtual Power Plants, Part Infinity

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Oh the irony, it burns. Former President Trump sailed into the Oval Office on a pledge to save coal jobs, but his administration set the stage for punching the energy transition into warp speed. Take virtual power plants, for example. Everybody is talking about virtual power plants now, but the field was a sleepy one until Trump’s own hand-picked chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opened up the floodgates.

Why Is Everybody Talking About Virtual Power Plants Now?

For those of you new to the topic, there are different kinds of virtual power plants, but they all share one thing in common. They are creatures of the renewable energy revolution and smart grid technology. Virtual power plants link small-scale energy consumers and producers into one giant pool that can respond to grid-wide fluctuations in supply and demand. That’s an explosive contrast with traditional grids that only feed electricity to consumers, not the other way around.

Virtual power plants can include any small scale connected device, from hot water heaters and rooftop solar panels to heat pumps, EV batteries, and home energy storage systems.

The floodgates opened in September of 2020, during the waning days of the Trump administration. That’s when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, under the leadership of Trump appointee Neil Chatterjee, finalized FERC Order No. 2222, aka “A New Day for Distributed Energy Resources.”

“FERC Order No. 2222 will help usher in the electric grid of the future and promote competition in electric markets by removing the barriers preventing distributed energy resources (DERs) from competing on a level playing field in the organized capacity, energy and ancillary services markets run by regional grid operators,” FERC enthused.

Virtual Power Plants: The Devil Is In The Details

For all of Trump’s pro-coal cheerleading, all throughout his tenure the US Department of Energy was laying the groundwork for Order 2222, by promoting decentralized grids and distributed energy resources as the key to an overhaul of the nation’s electricity profile.

By the time Order 2222 came down, the damage was done.

“This rule enables DERs to participate alongside traditional resources in the regional organized wholesale markets through aggregations, opening U.S. organized wholesale markets to new sources of energy and grid services. It will help provide a variety of benefits including: lower costs for consumers through enhanced competition, more grid flexibility and resilience, and more innovation within the electric power industry,” FERC explained.

That was the easy part. FERC cautioned that grid operators would have to go back to the drawing board and rework their tariffs to allow for DERS to participate.  That is a lot more complicated than it sounds, as described by various law firms with clients in the field.

The Power Of The VP3 Compels You

Despite some delays, stakeholders are hopping on board and 2023 is shaping up to be the Year of the Virtual Power Plant.

One key development is the launch of VP3 last month, a new initiative under the umbrella of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

If RMI rings a bell, you may be thinking of that dustup over gas stoves. However, that’s peanuts compared to other RMI activities. RMI is also known for accelerating the adoption of renewable energy by top US corporations, under its Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance initiative (now the Clean Energy Buyers Alliance).

If RMI can do for VPPs what REBA did for renewables, fossil energy stakeholders are in for a world of hurt. Founding members of VP3 include high profile heavy-hitters like Ford and GM, which are eager to stack the consumer benefits of virtual power plants onto their electric vehicle lineups.

VP3 also includes leading solar stakeholders like Sunrun, which has been making some big moves of late. Sunrun shepherded the startup Lunar Energy out of stealth mode back in August of 2020, anticipating that the two companies would open the US market to advanced battery-sharing technology that already has a proven track record in Japan and Europe.

It looks like the plan is coming together. Lunar began quietly deploying its Lunar Gridshare technology with Sunrun in several US states over a year ago. Earlier this week the two companies leveled up their plans for the future, with Sunrun CEO Mary Powell calling Gridshare “a game changer for us.”

“To build the grid of the future, it is so powerful to be able to flawlessly orchestrate all the various distributed energy technologies in our customers’ homes,” Powell said.

“Gridshare evaluates and forecasts factors such as weather, energy consumption, and solar generation and predicts available energy at the device level. That precision at the device level compounds at the fleet level and gets as much energy as possible into the VPP,” Lunar explained.

A Solid-State VPP In Every Pot

Lunar currently applies Gridshare to available off-the-shelf home energy storage systems, but that is going to change in short order. This week, Lunar also teased up word that it is introducing its own battery in the coming months. The Lunar battery will come with integrated with Gridshare software to make the user experience even more seamless.

As for what battery, that’s a good question. If you have any ideas about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Our guess is solid-state batteries, if not this year then eventually. Along with Sunrun as a lead investor, Lunar Energy is also supported by the South Korean firm SK Group. The firm’s SK Innovation branch has been active in the solid-state field (check out our complete coverage here), including a mashup with the legendary lithium-ion battery innovator John Goodenough.

SK Innovation announced the partnership with Goodenough back in 2020, anticipating that “a new gel-polymer electrolyte system has the potential to suppress dendrite growth and shorten the time to market for an all-solid lithium metal battery.”

Dendrites are the bane of lithium-ion batteries. These tiny, fernlike structures grow in a conventional battery and eventually interfere with charging times and capacity. Subbing out the liquid electrolyte for a solid one can solve the problem while also adding benefits.

“The goal is to develop a microporous polymer matrix with weakly-coordinating-anion system that can be applied to larger, more powerful cells,” SK explained.

In addition to improved performance, solid state fans cite advantages including safety, supply chain reliability, and end-of-life recycling opportunities as well as a lighter, more compact footprint. The emerging consensus is that all-solid-state technology has a few years to go before bridging the gulf between laboratory and market, but perhaps Lunar and SK have a surprise up their sleeves.

In 2021 SK hooked up with the firm Solid Power and the plot thickened last month, when Solid Power received a $5.6 million grant from the Energy Department’s ARPA-E funding office last month, to develop a solid-state battery based on a sulfur composite instead of nickel and cobalt.

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Image: Rooftop solar has fostered the rise of virtual power plants are coming (screenshot courtesy of Sunrun via YouTube).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3243 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey