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Beyond the battery

In 2017, the Wärtsilä group acquired Greensmith Energy Management Systems Inc., a market leader in grid-scale energy storage solutions, integration and software. John Jung, Greensmith's President & CEO, outlines the company’s exciting contributions to the future of integrated energy within an intelligent grid.

I decided to set a very different strategy and course for the company than the rest of the industry. I believed that it was important to have a larger impact on the grid by going utility-scale right away.

Any discussion with John Jung, President & CEO of Greensmith Energy, is likely to provide a fresh perspective on the matter at hand. It’s easy to see why, in 2009, when a group of investors saw the potential for creating a new contender in energy storage, they elected to put Jung at the helm.

Even though the market potential for battery-based energy solutions was already in the air, Jung was keen to push for a more expansive outlook for the electrical grid and differentiated technology approach:

“I decided to set a very different strategy and course for the company than the rest of the industry, which was fascinated with finding a better battery or trying their hand at small systems for home use. I believed that it was important to have a larger impact on the grid by going utility-scale right away.”

“I also believed that while they're merely components, battery innovations would continue to be developed indefinitely, and that no particular battery would be appropriate for all uses of energy storage. Most importantly, I felt there was greater value in thinking about energy storage as a distributed computer that – like data centres and now cloud computing – could be built large or small, integrated into a network as appropriate, and serve different jobs simultaneously."

Jung saw energy storage technology as having the potential to become a flexible, programmable asset – one that would deliver value as a generation or distribution asset – and could complement other grid assets through integration and optimisation algorithms. He speculated that energy storage could become the first versatile appliance used by operators of all shapes and sizes of grids around the world to solve a variety of grid congestion issues.

“While the venture capital community was funding investments in battery technologies and chemistries, the crux of our technology strategy was that of energy storage adding tremendous value through scale, integration, software and data. This also involved building a platform that could leverage different batteries for different applications and be fully integrated with any other grid asset.”

Jung takes the iPhone as an analogous product from another industry altogether:

“No one talks about the chips inside their phone – these are just viewed as a commodity. Whereas everything you can do with it – and the huge number of products that have been substituted by this single device and platform – that’s where the value lies. In fact, Apple sold more iPhones in Q4 2016 than the PC industry sold computers."

By 2016, Greensmith solutions had delivered a third of the energy storage capacity of the United States, a colossal figure for a team of under 30 personnel.

Changing the conversation

Jung’s perspective has certainly borne fruit since the strategy was set, and Greensmith Energy’s solutions are now in place and working with a large variety of battery technologies from different providers. In many ways, their way of working espoused a component- and technology-neutral approach, before the term came into vogue in the industry.

“We changed the focus from the battery to the other possibilities, predominantly through the use of software. First, as I mentioned, we saw that energy storage could be used to orchestrate an entire network of distributed energy resources. We then put an emphasis on solving some of the largest grid problems being faced around the world – whether the customer was a utility, a power producer, or from any other segment or concern. We took a platform approach to solving our customer’s problems."

Lessons learned in the technology industries helped Jung see the potential benefits for energy-producing customers:

“It seemed like the kind of technology that would benefit from economy of scale. Reducing the price per MW and the price per MWh were obvious metrics to pursue.”

A rampant success story

Following this strategy, Greensmith Energy’s roster of successful deployments has grown, hand in hand with the energy storage market as a whole. By 2016, Greensmith solutions had delivered a third of the energy storage capacity of the United States, a colossal figure for a team of under 30 personnel.

It’s a success story that Jung attributes to concentrating the company’s accumulated expertise and exceptional staff upon its key product – the Greensmith GEMS software platform. Indeed, he is almost evangelical about the platform’s capabilities:

“Having successfully developed our multi-application grid software through hundreds of megawatts of system integration and installation experience on either side of the meter, our GEMS platform stands alone as the most proven software platform available to energy storage operators.”

The company’s track record has encompassed some of the largest and most noteworthy cases to hit the North American energy market in recent years. It also resulted in a year-long global cooperation with Wärtsilä on stand-alone energy storage and hybrid energy solutions.

For instance, in 2016 Greensmith successfully deployed its largest system to date – a 20 MW/ 80MWh energy storage system at the AltaGas Pomona Energy Facility in Pomona, California – in response to a massive gas leak in Aliso Canyon. The project highlighted the company’s ability to deliver such a system safely, on time, and on budget, in just four months – an industry record.

“Aliso Canyon demonstrated our ability to leverage major OEM relationships and our proven experience and technology platform,” says Jung, “allowing us to deliver North America’s largest and most complex energy storage system safely, quickly and reliably. Our system-wide expertise and deep integration experience were critical to the delivery of this installation, which was qualified into CAISO before other large competitors.”

The system in question delivers 80 MWh of electricity during peak periods of energy demand to power around 15,000 homes for four hours each day. The 20 MW system is part of North America’s largest battery storage facility, and is comprised of a breath-taking 12,240 lithium-ion batteries in 1,020 racks and ten inverters. The system also delivers four separate applications – including participating in the California energy market, which at times yields more than $1,000/MWh for asset owner AltaGas, an independent power producer.

Jung is confident in the two companies’ shared mind-set, and in the assertion that Greensmith’s new place at the heart of Wärtsilä’s Energy Solutions business area will pay dividends for years to come.

Enabling renewables

Jung is also keen to demonstrate the effectiveness of GEMS in enabling sources of renewable energy to become viable. “To take one example, photovoltaic, or PV, represents an intermittent resource,” he says, “one that can disrupt the grid with frequency and voltage fluctuations on cloudy days. Evidently a complementary solution is required here, but then it’s a question of which one.”

By using PV integrated with Greensmith's energy storage and GEMS software platform, an energy producer can provide smooth power output when weather conditions are less than ideal, minimising the impacts on grid stability.

Fast-acting energy storage, operating in concert with the PV system, can control power quality by calibrating battery charging and energy exports to the grid. In doing so, the system mitigates the need for large-scale PV to curtail output as clouds come and go.

“As the needs of the grid change,” says Jung, “the time-shifting power to isolate generation and demand will help solar plus storage evolve. Everyone purchasing electricity, be it the utility in the wholesale market or the residential end-customer, wants a stable supply of energy, but daily peak energy consumption is a constantly moving target affected by demand growth, energy efficiency, temperature and other factors.”

By using the GEMS platform, Jung points out, producers can optimize performance to provide a fast response when one is called for throughout the day, while storing enough energy to discharge when it’s needed most. The role of energy storage here is to help bridge the gap between production and consumption.

Smart possibilities

If these benefits sound familiar, that may be due to the similarities between Greensmith’s working philosophy and the Smart Power Generation approach Wärtsilä has been driving forward for a number of years.

This is no coincidence. Jung is confident in the two companies’ shared mind-set, and in the assertion that Greensmith’s new place at the heart of Wärtsilä’s Energy Solutions business area will pay dividends for years to come. The collaboration has begun at full throttle, with joint projects already active around the world.

“This is the perfect moment for this collaboration to begin,” he emphasises. “The energy storage market is growing increasingly quickly, and the need for integrated, intelligent hybrid energy solutions is shaping a wealth of new opportunities.”

On the evidence of Greensmith’s progress thus far, the fruits of this new partnership will come to define what energy storage means to Wärtsilä’s customers ­– and more importantly, what it can do for them.