The grid's dumbest component (and how to make it smart)

Tools

By Jesse Berst

 

What is the single dumbest electrical component? It's the load panel (the circuit breakers) in your home or office, which typically has a digital quotient of exactly zero. Even door locks are going digital more quickly.

 

An Israeli company wants to change that, and they've come a long way already. Computerized Electricity Systems (CES) stuffs the following functionality into its CES Smart Distribution Panel:

·         A class 1 meter supporting up to eight tariffs. And not just a lump-sum meter for the whole panel, but a separate monitor for each and every circuit

·         Two-way communication modules that support most popular standards

·         Load control switches for each circuit (turn things on or off)

·         Timers for each circuit (turn things on and off on a schedule)

·         Surge protection and arc fault interrupter (AFI) for each circuit

·         Phase balancing – distributing loads evenly across different phases (useful for electric vehicle charging)

 

This functionality can be accessed via an included software program (which is quite extensive), or via APIs from your own software.

 

The Smart Distribution Panel also has the ability to switch between different energy sources. It can switch seamlessly between grid power, storage, backup generation, or renewable energy (e.g. roof top solar). A property owner can program the CES software to choose the cheapest source of energy. It could, for instance, use rooftop solar when that is available, sell that solar to the grid when it has excess, and switch to batteries or to the grid as required, each time automatically calculating the least-cost source.

 

On top of the hardware, the company has built a software platform that includes much of the functionality of:

·         Typical smart home software (turn on the lights upstairs, lower the electric lines, etc.)

·         Building energy management software (in the event of a DR event, first or not the lowest priority devices, then the second lowest, then the third lowest, etc.)

·         Demand response software (run a DR event at 3 PM, sending e-mails and text messages to all customers)

The software even supports time-of-use pricing. It allows building energy managers to program how they want their building to behave. They can program their priority 5 loads to turn off if the price reaches x cents; the priority 4 loads when it hits x+5; priority 3 when it hits x+10; and so on.

 

.
 

But what about cost?

The units are currently assembled in Israel. The cost (before installation) ranges between $1,500 and $3,000 depending on the number of circuits. CES is negotiating with global contract manufacturers. As volumes move from the hundreds to the thousands, costs should drop.

 

Even so, the CES Smart Distribution Panel is clearly best suited today for new construction and large scale remodels, not for retrofits. CES has about 80 installations in North America, including hotels, bases and apartment buildings.

 

Why a partnering strategy is crucial

CES's progress will be gated less by the technology and more by its marketing and partnering strategies. Today, CES works with builders, solar integrators and regional distributors. Its future clearly lies in a partnership with one of the global giants such as Schneider, GE or Honeywell. Indeed, CES is already working with GE on military bases and on multi-station EV charging. It has also done a few small pilots with Duke, Southern and others.

 

In fact, the Smart Distribution Panel was selected by the Pecan Street Project for those homes that have solar and storage and an EV. The first unit will be installed this week.

 

So riddle me this. Why have we embedded sensors, monitors and digital intelligence into virtually every piece of the electricity value chain... except the load panel? As soon as I heard what CES is doing, the light bulb went on over my head. (It was an LED bulb, of course, none of those inefficient incandescents for my brainstorms.)

 

What's your take on the smart panel concept? Is it the breakthrough it appears at first glance? The Talk Back form below awaits your comments.

 

Jesse Berst is the founder and chief analyst of Smart Grid News.com. He consults to smart grid companies seeking market entry advice and M&A advisory. A frequent keynoter at industry events in the US and abroad, he also serves on the Advisory Council of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Energy & Environment directorate.