CEO, Kay Aikin, Named to Mainebiz Next List
Dynamic Grid announced today that CEO, Kay Aikin, has been selected as a Mainebiz Next Honoree. The annual list highlights business leaders who made significant contributions to Maine’s workforce and economy through their demonstrated leadership. Nominees to the list are selected through a nomination and vetting process. The complete list of honorees and Mainebiz profile articles are listed here.
On the nomination, Aikin said, “I feel so privileged to be selected for the Next List; after reading the profiles of the other honorees, I feel humbled to be a part of this incredible group of accomplished individuals.”
Aikin, who co-founded Introspective Systems in 2010, currently serves on the Maine Climate Council and the Gridwise Architecture Council. The energy arm of the Introspective System’s business, Dynamic Grid, is focused on building optimized energy management systems that use an economic-based software and hardware system propelled by artificial intelligence algorithms. The company produces hardware, namely controls systems, for microgrids and connected devices powered by its Intelligent Controls Software.
“In Maine, we are currently working on the island of Isle au Haut’s innovative microgrid, which demonstrates the electrical grid will transform into a more consumer-focused grid. Additionally, our other work includes projects in West Africa and Israel with an uptick in inquiries from several European countries,” Aikin said.
About Dynamic Grid
Dynamic Grid, an Introspective System’s brand, is a leading technology company headquartered in Portland, Maine. Using our patented xGraph architecture as the foundation, we can distribute intelligence to the grid’s edge, enabling better operational management of distributed energy resources. Our control systems optimize grid performance, leading to better efficiency, improved resiliency, and lower costs to consumers. The AI-driven algorithms in our microgrid controls, gateways, and edge devices transform the energy industry into a consumer-centered grid for a cleaner, greener future.
Everybody Wins with an Unlimited Vacation Policy
The first thing you hear when you tell someone that your company is moving to unlimited vacation time is, “Great; I’ll be taking the next 11 months off!” But when you explain that you’re a software company, you hear, “Oh, I see so, you’re one of those companies that dangles the benefit, but in reality, no one can ever use it because you’re too busy with the tasks.”
No. The answer is no to 11 months off, and no, we don’t use the policy as a ploy. In fact, we REQUIRE that all employees take a minimum of two weeks off per year paid. Full stop. We are a tech company, and when your product is software, your assets are people. So, creating a strong company culture becomes exponentially more important than the algorithms or lines of code you create. Think, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker. So why and how did we do it?
First, we took a look at our bus (a metaphor for our company) and determined who needed to sit where and who was missing. The empty seats, we determined, would likely be filled by Millennials or Gen Z workers, and we knew that they wanted different things out of work than their Baby Boomer counterparts. We learned some of this through surveys and interviews we conducted several months ago when we developed an employee handbook and company policies. The result of that research lead us to adopt flexible schedules, remote work, paid volunteer time, and 11 paid holidays, among other things.
Recently a dilemma presented itself when negotiating with a candidate who asked for more vacation than we offered our first-year employees. The request was for a minimum of four weeks of vacation, and we were offering two. While we had a provision that allowed for the possibility of negotiating more time off in an employment agreement, it somehow didn’t feel right that two employees with roughly the same experience and credentials could have a difference of three weeks or more in vacation time.
Enter the progressive forward-thinking, CEO. I had done a lot of research on unlimited time off when we looked at employee benefits last year. I found that companies that offered it weren’t less productive but more! Often employees take the same amount or less time off than employees with limited time. It was also seen as a great way to impact your work culture, and because there is no accrual of time, there are no tracking headaches and final pay calculations are a breeze. Kay enthusiastically welcomed the idea, so the only thing left to do was craft the policy, and we felt the entire team should do it together.
We chose to look at the policy through the eyes of a project manager. In other words, the more notice given, the easier it would be to plan the tasks of meeting our technical milestones. Keeping that in mind, we developed a rubric based on the amount of notice given, number of people gone at once, and the duration of the vacation. At Introspective Systems, if you’re the first person to request time for a certain period and give three months’ notice, you will get the time off. Generally, we ask that employees only take a two-week duration vacation one time per year but will allow exceptions with team approval (think honeymoons or trips to faraway places). We believe that taking a non-hierarchal approach, where the team is the decision-maker, will lead to better group accountability and employee empowerment.
By now, you must be wondering what constitutes an abuse of the policy? How much is too much time off? The answer to both is performance. We want to hire employees who are reflective of our core values. We want to work with dependable people who take ownership and are both innovative and courageous. It seems to us that if employees are underperforming or not a good fit for our company, it won’t be because they took too much time off. We’ve all worked with people who show up regularly but aren’t particularly productive and rock stars who kill it on a regular basis but might work odd hours. I said the answer to both questions is performance, so if you’ve been here a while, always give it your all but feel you need to go hang out with the Dalai Lama for a while to refocus and clear your head, yeah we’re probably going to approve that.
The night the lights went out in California
Listening to the news lately from California, the world has become aware how fragile the electrical grid has become. Millions of Californians have faced utility power shutoffs to stem the risk of electrical system-induced wildfires. Pacific Gas and Electric has warned that these outages could continue over the next decade. When the power goes out, the anger is palatable among consumers inducing chaos and economic loss.
Among the questions to be answered by California regulators and the utility industry is how can the grid transform to make it more reliable and resilient? The state must accelerate change to the electrical grid to avert further chaos.
The risk is that backup fossil fuel generation is being sold as a quick solution to keeping the lights on but runs the risk of jeopardizing California’s clean energy and carbon reduction goals. Solutions are varied, but key technologies to be deployed include more distributed energy resources like solar, wind, energy storage and the controls that integrate those resources into the grid. Introspective Systems is at the pioneering edge of these solutions.
We are developing autonomous AI controls that help balance the production of distributed generation in real-time while controls on the grid that allow portions of it to disconnect or “island” from the larger grid and keep the lights on. Our flagship project on Isle au Haut is an example of an early implementation of these controls.
Core Solution: Distributed Controls
Our market-based transactive energy controls powered by artificial intelligence algorithms are the core of our solution. In the next year, we will be deploying these solutions in California, Israel, Norway and on Isle au Haut. In the future, microgrids will become commonplace. We envision a time when a series of small areas of grid control or microgrids, in the industry parlance, will protect an entire utility grid. In California, several companies are installing individual microgrids and distributed control technology, but the most significant barrier is regulations.
California and other states are changing their regulations and providing increased opportunities for innovation. New solutions in energy storage, community-based solar, and microgrids, along with utility-managed projects, are providing cost savings by forestalling costly distribution network improvements. New incentives for consumer installed load that is locally controlled to provide services to the grid.
The regulation that will make the biggest difference in driving many of these other solutions will be real-time pricing. We just found a fascinating report by the General Services Administration, the building owner of virtually all of the federal government real-estate. This report studied government electricity bills and the effect of consumer pricing that tracks real-time wholesale pricing. The report found that the government would have saved 14% on their electricity bills. This electricity reduction was without autonomous control of loads that we estimate can reduce electricity bills by another 15%. This regulation change will incentivize smart heat pumps (like those used in Isle au Haut) that shift their load from peak load to daytime when solar is at its peak better utilizing that solar.
The next ten years will see many technology revolutions like those at Introspective Systems as well as changes in regulations and utility business models. Exciting times!
5-Minute Chatbot Session with Bjørn Tjomsland
We’re lucky to have the opportunity to work with Bjørn Tjomsland through our strategic partnership with W.Giertsen Energy. We met him last summer in Norway and were inspired by his expertise and wonderful sense of humor. He brings more than 20 years of experience that includes energy market design around the world for Nord Pool, the first multi-national energy exchange, and has worked in the areas of renewable energy generation within hydro and bio energy start-ups. He has an in-depth understanding of financial risk management having structured weather derivatives for a JV with the largest private US company as well as Aquila a #31 Fortune 500 company.
With degrees in engineering, computer science, and economics coupled with an expansive career, what piques your interest in the energy industry now?
Sustainable energy and new energy storage technology now makes it more efficient for us as a community and society to blend local, distributed power generation and storage with centralised economies of scale power generation. Distributed Energy Solution – DES. That makes for a big risk conversion and (market) power transfer to the consumers. The grid companies need to convert to becoming a collaborator and integrator with the various energy storages in their system. For the benefit of them and us. The power generators will need to also be aware of the possibilities that lies in the DES. The other day we used the battery in an electric car as energy source for a peak power need – W2G. Not that would like to do that as the batteries will degrade but still. Who thought that would be even possible!
What do you think the US could learn from Europe when shaping its energy policies?
Having travelled the world and designed power markets and given input to policies I am a bit humbled by your question. In the Nordic we are all integrated into one energy pool, and then this is integrated into the Pan European grid. We have made it possible very
soon to utilize energy flowing between far reaching places. We even invest in the national grid inside one country to remove bottlenecks that benefits the pan-national grid. This integration I think is interesting in a pan national or international energy policy. Think of the greater good!
Per capita, Norway is one of the largest consumers of electric vehicles. What changes should the rest of the world make in policy, technology, and infrastructure to achieve greater adoption of EVs?
Well, certainly not the Norwegian method! We started off with Dino Car being taxed to approximately double or more than the price on import + VAT. But for electric we do not charge any taxes. If you were to do the same, you wold have to subsidize the cars and sell them for free! Or double the price in all dino cars.
It is probably the most inefficient way of reducing the emissions, in the cost versus the effect – but on the other hand, it is very visible and in the spirit of saving the world we also need to be doing the right thing disregarding the pure cost/benefit. But I like that we regard energy efficiency as important – there are some very heavy electric cars with really inefficient electric motors, although its electricity they are throwing away. But to me, as an engineer, it does not matter what kind of energy we are wasting – we need to stop doing that!
Energy Storage Systems are emerging as critically important elements of (the new energy distribution design) microgrid design, how do you see the ESS market evolving and what needs to change for broad adoption?
Distributed energy storage and generation is the next big thing. Also, for mini grids as well as for integration of renewable energy and as a grid component. First and foremost, the efficiency needs to come up, we cannot throw away energy. Secondly, this is the solution for a more efficient and less expensive grid or energy distribution. So, both for energy generation as well as for the grid this is the element that is missing. All variants of renewable energy are variable in their generation. So, we need energy storage to use when needed and not when generated. The third is the need to improve through grid and energy distribution to handle all this. The element that is missing for all of this to happen is for a distributed energy component such as storage. This is the catalyst for many aspects of the energy challenges.
Non-invasive hydropower is such a success story in Norway, how difficult would it be to build a no-dam design in the US?
A quick background on this – we have interconnected a lot of the lakes through tunnels on high plateaus in Norway. Such that we regulate the water level by several meters, but the level for each lake is not that much. And it’s almost impossible to detect for users of the lake.
The US already has a lot of unused hydro potential! You have the opportunity to use several water ways that are in some way managed due to floods and other water management, only 3% of all dams are used for hydropower. You have a lot of interconnections that could be made in order to utilize the water more efficiently before the kinetic energy is lost with little environmental impact. By the looks of it and at what cost…
Can you give a Norwegian phrase or sentence that sums up the energy challenge?
I love old proverbs and if I might just make the context…Alt som er gammelt er ikke godt, og alt som er nytt er ikke nyttig. Everything old is not good, and all that is new is not useful – so we have to be careful that we choose wisely when we introduce ways of managing the challenges like with using electric cars – they are a great step forward! But we have to keep in mind that they need to be energy efficient as well, and the electricity need to be generated from a sustainable source.
Farmer’s Market List: Apples, Potatoes, Wind, and Solar
Heard about microgrids but not exactly sure what they are? Read Susan Ruhlin’s easy-to-understand blog about what they are and why they’re so important.
Admit it; you love a farmer’s market. You love those perfect pumpkins, the bumpy, waxy, gourds, the clover honey, and the bunches of carrots still sporting their floppy stems. You like talking to the growers because it’s nice to associate a human being with a product, and you also like the idea of keeping local dollars local. Indeed, we’re fortunate that the buy local movement is so robust in Maine because now it’s about more than just food and textiles. Enter the microgrid; the ultimate locally made energy resource.
First, to understand what a microgrid is and how it works, it’s helpful to think about how our national grid functions, so here’s a brief primer. The US National Grid is the vast distribution network of power generation plants such as coal, hydro, or natural gas, substations, wires, and transformers. The plants connect to distribution substations that connect to transformers via 450,000 miles of high-voltage power lines and 160,000 miles of overhead transmission lines that deliver the electricity to your home. It’s an antiquated system that’s ripe for disruption. You’ve likely heard news stories about weather-related power outages, potential hacking risks, or brownouts caused by too much demand on the grid in one area. Control of the energy distribution is by design, centralized, meaning the energy follows the demand, often for long distances. This concept is important because it impacts the resiliency of the grid, which ultimately relates to how often and for how long an outage occurs.
A microgrid, on the other hand, is a smaller version of the larger grid with one distinct difference; it can operate with or without the larger grid. The microgrid’s ability to island itself means it can work entirely on its own. Microgrids can be small enough to supply power to just a single building, or large enough to generate electricity for an entire college campus or small community. Fun fact, during Hurricane Sandy, Princeton University never lost power because of its microgrid and was able to supply power for all of the Emergency Response Services during that critical time.
Today’s microgrids use sophisticated software, like developed by Introspective Systems, to drive their operation enabling them to run more efficiently by optimizing their resources. Power generation, often from renewables like wind or solar, can learn to produce more when the sun shines, or the wind blows and when to store the excess for a rainy day. Another benefit is that consumers can make more cost-effective decisions on when to use or conserve their energy resources based on the real-time cost of power.
Microgrids are a cleaner alternative to traditional generation methods because, as already mentioned, renewable energy is often the fuel that powers them. The energy created is close to the homes that use the power, so there’s little to no waste from wire transmission. Additionally, even higher efficiency is possible if buildings implement Combined Heat and Water (CHP) systems. CHP transforms waste heat into usable energy, heat, and hot water for the building.
Now more than ever, communities want to have a say over where their power comes from and what sources are used to generate it. Microgrids are rapidly becoming a game-changer in the energy space, and the market is growing rapidly. So, the next time you visit the farmer’s market, look for the solar or wind tables, I promise you’ll find the conversation illuminating.
How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technologies Can Support Integration of Renewable Energy
The electrical grid is arguably the most complex machine on Earth and is evolving rapidly from its centralized history of the last century. However, the grid is changing not only physically with the addition of large amounts of variable renewable energy, but in the use of new intelligent control algorithms. These AI algorithms are poised to revolutionize the way we produce, transmit and consume renewable energy in the next grid.
The current grid was not designed to accommodate the diversity of renewable energy sources and the inherent variability of solar and wind creates challenges in meeting variable load. The utility industry is increasingly confronted with variable supply trying to match variable load. It is our supposition that AI can help mitigate this challenge and make renewable energy an equal player in providing the countries electricity.
This article explores 4 ways that AI methods can improve the integration and adoption of renewable energy resulting in a modernized electrical grid supporting the reliability and resilience of the overall grid.
1) AI will improve centralized control centers
2) AI will allow new capabilities for integrating microgrids
3) AI drives new smart consumer devices and value streams and
4) AI optimization techniques will improve the placement and resulting value of Distributed Renewable Energy
Improved centralized control centers: The energy grid is becoming increasingly interconnected as computing, data collection, and devices scale exponentially. This brings new opportunities to use the power of AI algorithms to learn from the big data with new collections of sensor data. This will give grid operators new insights into control methods to cope with renewable energy variability. These algorithms will be focused on things like weather and load predictions making the integration of renewable energy in the bulk power system better understood.
Integration of microgrids: The path to managing distributed energy leads through the widespread adoption of microgrids. As more and more community-level renewable generation (mostly solar) are put in the grid the challenges of balancing energy flows within that grid is getting more acute. However, renewables have a part to play in solving congestion and power quality issues in the distribution grid, and the path includes the involvement of AI-powered control optimization. Because of the dynamic nature of the grid below the substation autonomous controls, and new methods like transactive energy will have an outsized role in this revolution, AI technologies will be integral to the transition. Learning AI Algorithms like Adaptive Dynamic Programming and intelligent multi-agent systems hold great promise to not only provide real-time control but improve system optimization over time as new generation sources and devices are integrated.
New smart consumer devices and value streams: We are already seeing the remaking of the home with distributed intelligent devices but this trend is moving to the renewables world with smart batteries coupled to rooftop solar, EV chargers and energy management systems. AI will drive most of these new products and will provide new ways for the consumer to save money with transactive energy controls that work on real-time energy pricing. These AI-powered control methods can unlock new value streams to consumers and support things like smart inverters providing various grid reliability services. Linked to these AI algorithms in devices smart ledger value transfer is a possibility although there is much research needed in this area.
Improve the placement and resulting value of Distributed Renewable Energy: The value of Distributed Energy Resources (DER) in the distribution system is highly dependent on where it is placed within the topology of the system and how it is operated. For instance, a battery located on a constrained distribution line has greater value (offsetting infrastructure rebuilds) than one that is being only used for solar array load shifting. One asset providing multiple values to the grid can promote new valuation models increasing the opportunities for renewable energy to contribute. AI methods can not only find the most valued locations for DER but AI driven controls can operate them in dynamic ways that increase the contributions as conditions evolve.
These four areas where AI techniques will contribute to renewable energy integration will translate into a new, improved and modernized electrical grid are only a few of the ways that AI will change how we interact with the grid. These new methods and products will allow the distribution system to integrate high penetration levels of renewable energy, lowered carbon footprints, and more consumer choices. This will truly be the next, next grid.
I will be speaking on a similar topic in the Disruptive Technology track of the 2019 IEEE Women in Engineering International Women’s Leadership Conference (IEEE WIE ILC) held on May 23-24th in Austin, TX. See http://ieee-wie-ilc.org for more information.
This article was published in by Renewable Energy World Magazine on April 23, 2019
Supercapacitor-Based Energy Storage – Here to Stay
If you spend any time researching microgrids, you quickly realize how important energy storage is to the equation. We asked Larry (Chip) Seibert, of Kilowatt Labs to share his knowledge on the subject. Kilowatt Labs, based in New York City, is the developer of the world’s first supercapacitor-based energy storage system, Sirius Energy Storage. As a co-founder and managing director, Chip brings nearly 30 years of experience from the financial industry that includes work in the public, private, and startup markets. Additionally, he has founded, invested in, and managed numerous early-stage companies in the technology and healthcare industries.
Whether or not you believe we are at a critical point in our existence here on earth, there are very good reasons to aggressively move toward cleaner power generation and more efficiency overall in our energy delivery systems. Better power management and energy storage are critical to this effort not just because renewable energy is intermittent in its production, but also because these systems are based upon old and inefficient methods that are ripe for improvement.
The energy sector is enormous, at just under 10% of worldwide GDP. Within this footprint, stationary applications account for approximately 75% of consumption, while mobile applications—such as vehicles and consumer devices—comprise the balance. Less than 2% (EIA 2018) of the energy produced in the U.S. comes from solar generation. Roughly 17% of generation is from renewable sources, but most of this is produced from wind and hydropower. Despite decades of time and effort spent trying to move the U.S. toward solar energy, the results to date can only be seen as disappointing. Upon close inspection, the reason for this lackluster adoption is quite simple: thus far, solar generation has not been effective or economical.
Why is this the case? Large solar deals, after all, are now getting done at prices in the pennies per kilowatt hour. What is less understood is that virtually all solar generation today is what’s referred to as “grid-tied,” meaning that as cheap as this solar generation might be, there is an army’s worth of infrastructure that is required to allow that generation to actually be used effectively by consumers. Even once this is accomplished and about 20% of the energy injected into a grid is renewable, the grid begins to become unstable due to its inability to manage the intermittent nature of this generation.
The solution to this problem is more effective power electronics and better energy storage. The current excitement surrounding energy storage has increased apace with the emergence of more and better options in this area. While energy storage in the form of batteries has been around for more than a century, these electrochemical devices have suffered from several key shortcomings that have limited their wide deployment within both stationary and mobile applications. First, even when maintained under perfect conditions, they do not last long enough and require replacement within an unacceptably short period of time. Disposal of used batteries is difficult and costly: the batteries themselves are bulky and contain toxic materials that must be disposed of carefully and properly, which, unfortunately, many would argue happens far too infrequently, meaning that these batteries are ultimately contributing to significant environmental damage.
Further, due to their chemical nature, they are inefficient and potentially dangerous when charged or discharged too rapidly. They are limited by control systems that force the charge and discharge rates to exceed several hours or more. While this feature is a limiting factor even for grid storage applications, consumers, in particular, do not want to wait while charging vehicles or devices. This inefficiency results in the creation of heat both during charging and discharging, resulting in a loss of energy which, over time, adds up to a significant cost and the potential for permanent damage to the battery.
In short, what we need is a better energy storage technology that enables a flexible range of charging and discharging speeds, provides very long product life, contains less toxic materials, provides a higher level of safety, enables acceptably high energy density, and finally, provides these features at an attractive price point. At Kilowatt Labs, we did not begin our journey with a search for better energy storage technology. As experts in electronics, we began by asking ourselves what was the biggest problem we could think of that could be solved with electronics. The task at hand, we believed, was to provide products that enabled the movement from fossil fuel-based energy generation and transportation systems to electrical systems. Solving this problem required the development of power management systems that enabled a small system to be truly independent—a “utility in a box” if you will. With generation and some form of energy storage, our “energy server,” aptly named the Centauri Energy Server, was capable of performing all the functions of the grid in a smaller, islanded (off-grid) setting. These systems were set up in places where there was no grid and while they were capable and efficient, they required the use of an energy storage system to provide energy during non-generation times. Unfortunately, the battery systems that were available at the time (mostly lead acid) were woefully inadequate for the hot climate in which they were installed and failed in many cases within a year.
We quickly recognized that all electrochemical energy storage systems would suffer a similar fate and began a development effort focused around a device that had been in existence even longer than batteries: the capacitor. These devices had been used in a narrow range of applications focused on rapid charging and discharging of electrical energy. They are known to have a very long life due to that fact that they are electrostatic devices, thereby storing electrical energy as electrical energy. This method has the benefit of producing little to no energy loss in the form of heat, thereby also offering high efficiency.
Capacitors, now larger and known as supercapacitors, have three well-known properties that have made them less useful in longer-duration energy storage applications. First, they are low voltage devices that are extremely difficult to control in parallel and series configurations necessary to achieve meaningful scale. Second, they tend to leak energy and, if fully charged and left alone, will be depleted within several days. Third, they tend to exhibit what is known as a linear discharge curve. This simply means that they essentially discharge all their stored energy at once and are not useful for any kind of extended use applications. Finally, typical supercapacitor densities are simply not acceptable, even for stationary applications where the demands on space are less than for consumer applications.
We overcame the first three challenges with extremely fast control electronics, which allowed the ability to scale solutions into the megawatt hours and match the discharge to any load. We developed special circuitry to address the leakage problem, resulting in self-discharge rates similar to that of modern chemical batteries. Finally, we were able to work with several materials providers to increase the density of our capacitors, allowing our energy storage systems to rival that of batteries in terms of size and weight.
When combined, our energy server, the Centauri, and our supercapacitor-based energy storage, Sirius, create a system that can provide high-quality power where there is none. These products can also provide bi-directional services within the grid in a long-lasting, flexible, safer, less toxic package than current chemical storage systems. Here in the U.S. and in other developed countries, energy generation and delivery systems are quite robust, but this is not the case in much of the rest of the world. South Africa, for instance, is currently experiencing rolling brown/black-outs. Where there is no power grid at all, there are fewer options, and up until now, none of these have been particularly attractive. Even in these most remote conditions, where there is no grid, our two technologies can provide the solution. Together, our power management and energy storage products have the ability to optimize any set of generation sources and can fully handle the requirements of the load without reliance on the grid.
Where there is a grid, things work better. But there are two distinct problems with the grid. First, fossil fuel generation most would agree, is problematic. Given the choice, cleaner generation would be preferred. Second, the now 100-year-old grid technology is quite inefficient. This is because 1) upgrades involve large infrastructure projects that must take into account the next several decades of use, and 2) the nature of the delivery system results in end users generally having more capacity than they can use outside the brief periods during which they might need it. While quite robust, these massively over-built systems present an opportunity ripe for change.
Despite these challenges, the utility companies are still the experts at operating these incredibly complex and impressive systems. Most do not realize that the power coming out of an outlet has only an instant ago been generated in response to the aggregate demand in the marketplace. Supply is adjusted up and down moment by moment as necessary and must be kept exactly in balance with demand or the system will crash. This is a complex and impressive job that happens every second of every day. When it becomes impossible, as is currently too frequently the case in places like South Africa, outages ensue.
We continue to have a great deal of respect for the electric utility companies and believe the much-anticipated electric utility “death spiral” is unlikely to occur. Remember the famous Willie Sutton quote, when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” These companies have a century of acquired expertise, substantial existing infrastructure, ready access to capital, and all the customers. The rapid and necessary change will not occur in opposition to the electric utility companies. The effort to upgrade the energy infrastructure currently implemented around the globe will require a serious, collaborative effort by everyone. At Kilowatt Labs we believe that we have a significant contribution to make and look forward to working with others to move the world’s energy infrastructure forward to truly be the grid of the future.
Our Trip to Capitol Hill
Last week we participated in a Clean Energy Business Network “Fly-in” along with 11 other startups. The participating startups had received funding from the Department of Energy for research and development projects. The event and our travel expenses were made possible by a grant from Gates Ventures.
In some ways, this event was in response to the President’s budget which proposed the elimination of Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and an 11% decrease in overall funding for the Department of Energy (DOE). Attendees met with members of their state’s congressional delegations to discuss the impact that DOE funding has had on their companies. Kay met with Senator King and his staff, Senator Collins’ staff and members of Representative Pingree’s staff. She spoke about the importance of preserving or increasing the DOE funding, and the critical role it plays in increasing our innovation base for a clean energy future.
Introspective Systems has received $1.4 million in funding for research on transactive energy management systems and the dynamic stability of managing the US electrical grid. Recently, we received funding for a project on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), a technology that pumps water into hot rocks thousands of feet below the earth’s surface and uses that warmed water to drive conventional steam turbines. Introspective Systems will develop monitoring software that enables EGS systems to be cost competitive and fully integrated into the electrical grid.
This funding led to the creation of 10 full-time jobs and 3 contractor positions. It has also been a catalyst for our product development and our ability to obtain contracted work with clients. We’ve formed strategic partnerships and built a pipeline of projects across the globe within the microgrid market.
At the fly-in, we met founders of innovation-based companies like Gary Cola, President of Flash Steelworks/Flash Bainite. His team develops technology to make steel lighter and stronger, with dramatic potential benefits for fuel efficiency. We also met Nalin Kumar of UHV Technologies whose company won multiple DOE and ARPA-E awards to develop an X-ray technology that can easily sort light metal alloys used in cars to increase fuel efficiency and strength. Ted Sorenson’s engineering firm owns and operates several low-impact hydropower plants many of which have been supported with grants from the DOE’s Hydro Incentive Program.
We can’t speak to the politics of the proposed federal budget line items but we can advocate strongly to keep or increase DOE’s funding and so can our 10 employees whose jobs were created as a result of it.
5 Question Chatbot Session with E2Tech’s Executive Director, Melissa Winne
Meet Melissa Winne, E2Tech’s Executive Director. As the public face of the organization, she serves as a champion of the Maine energy, environmental, and clean technology cluster. She manages a large membership network, promotes the cleantech sector’s impact on Maine’s economy, and produces several informative forums on energy and environmental issues. Melissa is a native of Upstate New York and a graduate of Union College where she earned a degree in environmental policy.
For folks who don’t know, can you share a bit about E2Tech as an organization and its mission?
The Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech) is the State’s leading energy, environmental, and clean technology business and economic development organization, acting as a catalyst, a change agent, and a resource center. E2Tech strives to promote companies, support their robust and sustainable acceleration, and help those companies compete in national and international markets. We facilitate networking, serve as a clearinghouse for information, and lead efforts to promote the sector through business and economic development and sustainable job growth. In our efforts to provide both information and the venue for making valuable connections, we hold monthly forums and networking events on key energy and environmental topics.
How does E2Tech overlap with other economic development agencies?
E2Tech originally grew out of efforts stemming from the Maine State Chamber about 16 years ago to help support the growth of the environmental, energy, and clean technology sectors. We continue to work alongside a variety of economic development agencies, including the Maine State Chamber, Maine Technology Institute, SCORE, MITC, ACTION Innovation Network, Maine Center for Entrepreneurs, Navigate, CEI, Cleantech Open, among others. Maine has such a depth of resources for startups and business growth, and E2Tech is proud to exist in this supportive ecosystem. Primarily, we act as a connector, providing the platform through our events and networking receptions for connections to happen organically, including business connections with customers, business partners, resources, and information. Additionally, we work to inform companies both in the state, and looking to expand their business to Maine, of the resources that already exist here to help support and promote their success.
Can you describe the positive economic impact that cleantech has had for Maine over the last five years?
The 2017 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index – a data-based comparison of all 50 states among 80 technology, capital, and policy indicators – finds that Maine improved its overall ranking from 18th to 16th since 2016, and surged ahead 13 places since 2014. In particular, the Technology category which tracks the progress of states’ deployment across three categories – clean electricity, clean transportation, and energy intelligence and green buildings – has improved from 31st in 2010 to 9th in 2017. Of course, this kind of industry growth has great benefits for the state including job creation and positive economic impact. What is also exciting for growth in clean technology, is that the technology es developed in this sector often leads to reduction in carbon emissions and overall benefits to Maine’s environment, which positively impacts our quality of life and supports other key industries in the State such as tourism, outdoor recreation, and the seafood industry.
Where do you think Maine is a leader in policy and where is there room for improvement?
There are many experts and Legislators that are in the midst of discussions in Augusta around this exact question. Other states have experimented with a number of innovative policy initiatives to help support and grow the energy sector and move towards a clean energy economy. While it’d be easy to get into the depths of these policy details and their impact, one of the most important points I often hear from our member companies is the need for policy certainty. As with any business, it is hard to justify investment if there is extreme uncertainty around the policies, regulations and processes for that sector. If we moved towards more political certainty, especially in the energy sector, I think there’d be additional growth in investment and economic development.
In addition, in 2017 the Maine Economic Growth Council presented “Measures of Growth 2017” which tracked Maine’s performance on fundamental economic indicators and the key leverage points that move the state toward the council’s vision of high quality of life for all Maine people. One important indicator that was taken from this report was that Maine spends only about 1% of its total Gross Domestic Product on research and development (R&D), which ranks the state 37th nationally. If we are going to continue to expect growth in innovative sectors and have these sectors help lead economic development efforts, we need to invest resources into R&D at the state-level.
Can you tell us about a couple of really innovative companies you worked with?
Of course, we are proud to have Introspective Systems as part of our membership and are excited about all of the innovative grid management work that you are doing. There are so many innovative companies it is hard to highlight just a few. Ocean Renewable Power Company is leading the way in microgrid to utility-scale river and tidal energy applications, and underwater mobile power supplies for offshore energy applications. We’ve also been excited to see the growth of Pika Energy designing integrated microgrid technologies enabling any building to generate, store, and consume its own clean energy. On the software side, Rapport is working on sustainability tracking technologies with automated data collection and visualizations that help to measure, track and reduce an entity’s environmental impact. There is so much excitement and growth in these sectors in Maine, I can’t wait to see the new innovative technologies that will continue to be developed in the near future.
Introspective Systems Selected to Meet with Members of Congress to Discuss Future of Clean Energy Economy and Development
Introspective Systems will join 12 small clean energy businesses to meet with lawmakers in Washington D.C. regarding federal funding for clean energy research
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Representatives from Introspective Systems are thrilled to have been selected by the Clean Energy Business Network (CEBN)—a group of 3,000+ business leaders in all 50 states working in every part of the clean energy economy—to participate in select meetings with members of Congress on March 12 and 13. The meetings will discuss the need to protect and grow federal funding for the Department of Energy and clean energy innovation overall. CEBN will host 12 small businesses with footprints across 25+ states to showcase their work on Capitol Hill. Small business owners will have the chance to meet representatives from the public and private sector, discuss how their companies have developed and commercialized innovative energy technologies through partnerships with the Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and the National Laboratories. This is all in an effort to further the discussion on readily-available and emerging solutions to combat climate change, advance clean energy investment, and power America’s economy.
“I am most looking forward to sitting down with federal legislators and my fellow small business owners to discuss the opportunities provided by federal clean energy funding. Not only for me as a small business owner but in the 10 employees and 3 contractor jobs that Introspective Systems has been able to bring to Maine,” said Kay Aikin CEO of Introspective Systems. “We are proud to be among those leading the way in fostering a new era of clean energy technology. It is the work being done today in small business, national research labs, and our universities that will sustain American leadership in the energy sector.”
Introspective Systems helps enterprises manage complex systems. In the energy sector, the company develops distributed grid management software. One of the company’s DOE grants was for a project to help small electric grids reallocate resources based on price triggers. Additionally, the company received a DOE grant to assist in monitoring and managing enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). The firm is currently developing an advanced microgrid solution for all microgrid phases design, optimization, and deployment. When complete, this solution will enable parts of the electric grid to break away from the broader grid at any level to create independent islands, improving security and reliability while limiting chain-reaction outages. The solution will also accommodate multiple distributed energy resources, effortlessly blending traditional and renewable loads and enabling customers to take advantage of cost savings from real-time pricing that conserves resources and rewards efficient energy use. The company has been awarded over$3.5 million in DOE and other government funding.
Support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and National Laboratories are critical to advancing energy innovation. Federal investments in these programs help support the work of small businesses and startups that are focused on commercializing high-risk, high-reward clean energy technologies. These public-sector investments also help leverage private funding to expedite the commercialization of clean energy technology by breaking down barriers and helping bring cleaner products to the market sooner. As an example, ARPA-E has provided approximately $1.8 billion in R&D funding for more than 660 transformational energy technology projects since 2009, which have so far leveraged more than $2.6 billion in private-sector follow-on funding. The President’s budget request for the fiscal year 2020 proposes an 11 percent cut to the Department of Energy and elimination of ARPA-E; however, Congress has the ability to reject these cuts and continue funding and growing these critical programs.
“We are proud of our network of small businesses and the impact they bring not only to the energy industry but to their local economies as well. They are at the forefront of both innovation and education of what clean energy looks like in their communities. We hope that members of Congress realize the benefit that these small businesses provide to their states and districts,” said Lynn Abramson, President of the Clean Energy Business Network. “Across our country, we need increased collaboration between our private and public sectors to overcome the energy and environmental challenges our country faces.”
During their time in D.C., selected members of the Clean Energy Business Network will discuss with lawmakers the critical technological and environmental challenges facing the U.S. energy industry, and the corresponding importance of continued investment in innovating and deploying the next generation of clean energy solutions. The CEBN and its guests bring unique perspectives from their communities, offering members of Congress a clear lens into in the impact of policies and programs to advance the clean energy economy.
The Clean Energy Business Network (CEBN) works to advance the clean energy economy through policy, public education, and business support for small and medium-sized energy companies. Started in 2009 by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the CEBN is now a small business division of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. The CEBN represents 3,000+ business leaders across all 50 U.S. states working with a broad range of clean energy and transportation technologies.
Introspective Systems is the developer of xGraph, a breakthrough software platform that enables developers to build systems, optimize their entire environment of distributed systems, and deploy seamlessly. Designed for complex software ecosystems, xGraph combines edge computing with distributed analytics to speed processing time, enabling companies to scale, adapt to change, and manage large volumes of disparate data efficiently and securely. xGraph is AI-enabled for systems that require autonomous and collaborative decision-making. Companies use xGraph to meet the challenges of complexity in environments including healthcare, IoT, energy, and science. Learn more at IntrospectiveSystems.com
The Evolution of HistoryIT
What do history and technology have to do with one another? Well, if you think that history is important to us as a society, as I do, then the role that technology plays in how we teach and learn history, how we share stories about the past, is absolutely vital. The conviction that history is important is central to our mission to #savehistory at HistoryIT. Our other core belief is that history is in danger. My realization of this vulnerability and the basic business concept that ultimately became HistoryIT evolved gradually during my 20s and early 30s.
I have a background in both fields. I ventured to San Francisco during the late 1990s dotcom boom and bust, where I became a self-taught database and web developer. Having studied history and politics, I found it refreshing to work with something as linear and logical as databases, rather than constantly rethinking various interpretations. After a few years, though, the history bug bit me again and I entered a Ph.D. program at GWU in DC. I spent six years completely immersed in the world of research and archives and I never failed to acknowledge what a privilege it was to do so.
As a graduate student and in the years immediately following, I visited hundreds of archives. I had the training and the time to sift through paper – lots and lots of paper – and think about the stories they contained. As I marveled at the plethora of content and the vast number of primary sources with which to gather and share stories from the past, I wondered what the future held for these stories, locked away in boxes and folders, waiting for someone with the training, time, and access to come and assemble information into stories. This questioning was the seed of HistoryIT.
After a brief stint with the Chicago University Press, where I tried to blend my backgrounds in both technology and history and mold them into a career, I tried my luck as a consultant. Being able to speak both humanities and technology, I realized, made me a great resource for folks putting together humanities projects that involved technology. Basically, I fixed a lot of broken programs that were the result of the failure for one group to actually understand what the other was needing. After a year of fixing broken things, I wondered what it would be like instead to make things that work. Moreover, I thought about what it would take to harness technology, rather than run from it, in order to make more history accessible to more people. In 2012, I founded HistoryIT.
I was keenly aware that I had only a basic understanding of what was involved in creating, much less managing and growing, a business. I talked with anyone who was willing to speak with me about business strategies. My greatest problem – and one that continues to be a challenge for the company to this day – was how to concisely articulate what we do. My “elevator speech” six years ago would have needed a two-hour elevator ride. Over the years, we’ve whittled it down to this:
We save history. We save history by transforming historical resources (primary sources of any format) to a digital space in which they can be easily searched and utilized by diverse audiences.
In our work to do this, we provide a range of services, including digital strategy on how to fund and build usable digital archives, digitization, tagging, content creation, and a whole lot more. We also have our own software platform and later this year will launch a new hardware line.
We crafted our services, software, and hardware solutions over time, all centered on the core mission to make more history available to more people, and to have that undertaking bring new value and preservation assistance to the organizations who strive to protect that history. We started only with services, but soon realized that there wasn’t a digital platform that could manage digital history in a robust way – most solutions were iterations of analog library management software, which still required a whole lot of skill and time to navigate.
In 2013, deciding to build our own software and gaining some support from the Maine Technology Institute, I decided to move the company home and re-headquartered in Portland, Maine. The company was expanding. We were filling jobs. It was time to come home. It was an exciting year. I realized that the market for organizations that need to save their history was large. It turns out it is absolutely massive.
We grew quickly. In fact, we grew too quickly. We had offices in three states, upwards of 50 FTEs and dozens of contractors. By 2015, we had to regroup. We downsized streamlined processes and devised correlations between overall company size and the needs of our clients at any given time. We are now firmly rooted in Portland and Chicago and able to grow smartly rather than quickly.
In any given week, HistoryIT is juggling a zillion projects and priorities, working to educate organizations about what it takes to truly save history for the future, rolling out new software and hardware requirements, and dealing with whatever new challenges emerge. I think that there are a million such challenges that any entrepreneur faces, and two million that any female entrepreneur faces when growing a company. The only way to survive, indeed to thrive, is through sheer grit. When I’ve taken bold steps to blaze a trail in the world of digital history, I have formed a team of dedicated, hard-working, philosophy-driven people who share this grit and the vision to #savehistory.
Kristen Gwinn-Becker, Ph.D. is Founder and CEO of HistoryIT. With the goal of building truly searchable digital heritage collections, HistoryIT combines its software and services solutions to deliver robust digital presentations that are transforming the way the public will access our collective history. Proving that history truly is everywhere, clients include the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, Historical Society of Washington, DC, University of Indianapolis, Great American Songbook Foundation, Bangor Savings Bank, and several fraternal organizations, including Kappa Kappa Gamma, Phi Mu, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
What’s the Difference Between a Designer and an Engineer?
Growing up in Maine in the 70s and 80s, designer = glamorous cool; engineer = socially awkward geek. I blame societal conditioning.
My father was an engineer and my mother a math teacher; they definitely encouraged me in what is now called STEM. On the farm in Gorham where I grew up, they had me to do all the things my brothers did – even taking Hunter Safety at the Rod & Gun Club. But I had no interest in “masculine” stuff, including engines. That’s what I thought engineering was about. Perhaps I rebelled. I was artistic, creative – the opposite of a nerd. Social sciences, maybe. But not hard science.
I ended up getting degrees in Economics and Government. Bouncing around after college, I found myself in NYC, where I was offered textile design work. My fate was sealed. I wasn’t formally trained for it, but it came naturally. Design is all about figuring out the best solution to a problem, optimally in a visually appealing way. It was perfect for me.
In those days, computer graphics and processing power were nothing like they are today, so textile designs were all painted in painstakingly detail by hand on large sheets of paper. But I loved it. I got plenty of work. I designed textiles, casual clothes, backpacks, gloves, mittens, hair accessories – whatever companies needed. After a year or two, I was offered a job in Hong Kong.
I was up for the adventure. That trading company did mainly plush but wanted to get into giftware – the things you find in Hallmark stores. I didn’t do tchotchkes personally, but the boss said: “You’re a girl – you do the giftware.” It turned out I could be good at it. Buyers came, told me what they wanted, and I drew a picture of what to give them. There was an in-house sample making department and thousands of factories in southern China, eager to get the order, that had sample makers ready to do my bidding. I loved seeing how things were made. It was a very practical education – factory people explained to me why things couldn’t be made the way I wanted them, and how they saw the options; sometimes I learned technical parameters and sometimes I learned that the roadblocks they perceived could be overcome with the redesign. Cost considerations hung over everything. Not just the costs of the raw materials, but the cost considerations of time, prototyping, assembly, packaging and shipping, and sometimes marketing.
Eventually, I came back to the US to work for a wholesale distributor in Minneapolis, where I met an electrical engineer who had a business making 3D non-contact sensor systems. Very different. We married, and I stayed home and focused on children.
Ten years later, sneaking suspicions gave way to our worst fear: his sales partners were pirating his systems. We got calls to fix the fakes. None of the customers believed us – or cared. Fortune 500 companies such as Benchmark, government agencies such as the Jet Propulsion Lab – to this day, many of them still buy the pirated systems. The FBI didn’t care. When we sued, not one, but two federal judges here in Portland, without considering any actual evidence, decided in favor of the pirates. “A punch in the gut” is a cliché – but that’s the best way to describe the actual feeling. My husband needed someone he could trust. You could say I married into high-tech. It has been another practical education.
Even after ten years as a “woman in tech,” I still don’t identify with that label. I don’t call myself an engineer. But: again, I find the work suits me perfectly. I like to create things. The difference between an engineer and a designer, by the way, is the type of knowledge needed to solve the problem. Whether it’s the properties of greige goods or shiny metals, “Designers” and “Engineers” are both practical problem solvers. Some solve problems with computer code and electrical circuitry; others with graphics or fabric. I used to convey my ideas in gouache; now they’re conveyed in 3D modeling software. It’s creativity. We’re all creative, whatever we create, whatever we call ourselves.
I love what I do, which today is focusing on creating the business and product that is Apricart. Apricart is a smart-shopping cart designed to make shopping in brick-and-mortar stores more enjoyable and rewarding by converging the personalization of online shopping with real-life shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. I don’t do it alone, of course. I work with a team that is very specialized and very technical. So regardless of my self-image or inclination, in the scrum of it, I am “a woman in tech.” Hopefully, there will be more women in tech tomorrow.
Society is changing for the better. Tech is cool now. More women are entering STEM professions. My daughter’s elementary school demystifies engineering by having it as another “special” class – like Art or Music. Volunteering there recently, I was amazed by the proficiency of her classmates to build and describe electric circuits. Hopefully in the future gender distinctions will become irrelevant in the workplace, and we will recognize and celebrate knowledge and creativity in all its forms.
Allegra McNeally is the founder and CEO of Apricart is a smart shopping cart that vastly improves the shopping experience for retail grocery shoppers while gathering important path-to-purchase data for consumer packaged goods marketers and grocery stores. She is also the vice-president at VisionMaster a manufacturer of fully automated 3D Solder Paste Inspection Systems based in Portland, Maine.