Stem CTO Perspective: Digital is the Unifying Force of the Clean Energy Transformation

Oct. 28, 2022
Developers can design and build clean energy projects, but they typically cannot ensure grid resiliency for customers dependent on those assets for both sustainability and creditable, renewable energy consumption.
The commercial and industrial energy transition, as we know it, is morphing into a strand of many cords. It is solar, wind and battery storage, no doubt, but also conventional generators and unpredictable variables like market forces and weather.

What knots it all together is the computer. What hardens it is the software.

The predicted future of more and more low-carbon distributed energy resources, all of them intermittent and fluctuating all the time, needs a unifying and adaptive brain to manage and balance it all. That’s where the digital transformation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive maintenance all come into play.

“It has to be an automated process which can forecast” all the variables such as weather, Larsh Johnson, chief technical officer at energy storage management firm Stem Inc., said in a recent exclusive interview with EnergyTech. “Something only computers can do.”

Johnson has been helping lead Stem for seven years, and prior to that worked with Siemens and eMeter on various innovations in energy data analysis and calculation. Over time he decided the real action was on the other side of the meter.

That’s where his work with Stem comes in. Stem is not the kind of energy storage firm which owns batteries or parts, but instead operates, maintains, manages and dispatches the energy capacity generated on the solar and storage end.

Developers can design and build clean energy projects, but they typically cannot ensure grid resiliency for customers dependent on those assets for both sustainability and creditable, renewable energy consumption.

“What’s missing, and what Stem provides, is an energy solution can help facility deliver power and deliver it in the most economical means. We can use energy storage to mitigate the costs of delivering that power.”

Another thing Stem and competitors in the marketplace like AutoGrid also offer is the “virtual power plant” (VPP) capacity to aggregate and then discharge power into the grid at precisely the time it’s needed the most, such as peak loads and grid balancing needs.

One notable day was a Flex Alert day in September in California, when the state’s grid was under duress due to hot temperatures and challenges in resource generation. Gov. Gavin Newsom, long known for his championing of e-Mobility, was even asking residents not to charge their EVs at that time.

Stem, storing and combining customers’ battery capacity into the virtual power plant, dispatched about 85 MW/268 MWh of storage capacity into the grid over about five hours as needed, according to reports. Those kind of efforts, in addition to conservation by customers, helped Southern California Edison keep the grid frequency at operational levels.

Really just another day in the office for Stem, Johnson noted.

“Every day we’re dispatching some of the 30 VPPs which together have several hundred sites,” he said. “Every day, we’re helping those facilities save money on utility bills.”

The everyday work can come down to a utility giving 15 minutes notice for needing something from the VPP. Sometime the request is asking for action in only minutes or even seconds.

“The good thing about batteries is they can respond instantly,” Johnson pointed out.

Stem has a host of customers in the renewable development space, including more recent agreements with NineDot Energy, Available Power and partnerships with Engie and others.

One interesting new collaboration is with EV charging infrastructure firm InCharge Energy, focused on resiliency for fleet electrification. Many trucking firms are reticent about EV charging infrastructure since range and time to charge are clearly concerns.

Johnson, like many others, increasingly is becoming a fan of microgrid adoption, which are on-site renewable and energy storage assets to help provide resilient, sustainable power for EV charging stations.

“A very large number of our customers in the EV space are looking at resiliency,” he said. “In places where the grid interconnection can’t support the full power of DC (direct current) fast chargers—in those cases microgrids do provide that capacity.”

And the brain of that microgrid would be computer software utilizing AI, analysis and control technologies. The cloud is where the high ideals of the C&I energy transition can be enacted in real terms to offer a positive outcome to grid resiliency, sustainability goals and the bottom line.

“Most people recognize the value of energy storage is going to increase as the proliferation of renewables drives those fluctuations,” Stem’s Johnson said. “But it doesn’t happen by itself—intelligence (of the computer kind) can predict what those fluctuations will be.”

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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 14-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]). 

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