Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

US DoE funds development of solar connection prototype

Steve Rogerson
December 1, 2015
Texas-based Concurrent Design has received a one-year, $1m cooperative award from the US Department of Energy SunShot initiative to develop a prototype of Energy Switch, a home energy device that manages the flow of electricity between a home, the home’s solar panels, an on-site battery, back-up generation and the electric grid.
The project is supported by Pecan Street, which has already developed and tested the concept in its Pike Powers Lab in Austin. Located at the University of Texas at Austin, Pecan Street provides university researchers, utilities and technology companies with access to original data on consumer energy and water consumption behaviour, testing and verification of technology, and commercialisation services.
The SunShot award will allow Concurrent Design and Pecan Street to produce and test a more advanced prototype that demonstrates full commercial capability and can serve as a reference design for a new category of residential energy products.
Despite significant technology advances in solar photovoltaics, batteries and other distributed energy technologies over the past decade, a critical technology gap prevents these technologies from working together. For instance, what if a homeowner or group of homeowners wants to combine rooftop solar panels, a gas generator and a battery system to provide emergency backup generation to one or more grid-connected homes in the event of power outages? What if they want to combine these products to operate a microgrid?
Such systems require a hardware router that can intelligently move electricity between these various sources and can, when necessary, prioritise which electricity demands to serve. For example, this capability might be needed during power outages after hurricanes to ensure that refrigerators can operate or when a homeowner’s electricity demand exceeds the available energy from the battery, solar panels and generators.
“People can install their own solar panels and a home battery; they can even buy back-up gas generators,” said Pecan Street CTO Bert Haskell, a former MCC and HelioVolt executive who is leading hardware development efforts. “But the pieces don’t integrate well, so they are far less effective than the sum of their parts. If we want smarter homes that take advantage of innovation in solar and energy storage, we need tools to make sense of all the new customer options.”
Energy Switch could clear a path for widespread adoption of residential microgrids that feature solar, storage and even back-up generators. Pecan Street’s prototype eliminates redundant components, custom onsite design and labour costs of residential microgrids, making them simpler and less expensive to design and faster to install.
“Energy Switch fills a critical gap in the implementation of a smart, automated energy system that customers can take full advantage of,” said Thomas Ortman, president of Concurrent Design. “Customers have more options every year, and Energy Switch will make them all work better, smarter and more reliably. There is no question that this technology will happen. We are delighted to help this move along with the help of the DoE SunShot initiative.”
Energy Switch works with legacy residential infrastructure and appliances as well as new construction and smart appliances.