Unlocking the power of the biggest distributed energy resource out there.
Unlocking the power of the biggest distributed energy resource out there
Jeff St. John
The biggest distributed energy resource isn’t solar PV or demand response. It’s diesel backup generators. The United States has about 240 gigawatts of backup generation at hospitals, police stations, airports, military bases, cold storage facilities, data centers and other critical sites, sitting idle almost all the time, ready to be called upon when the grid goes down.
All these on-site generators need is to be tested every now and then, which is how Blue Pillar got its start in 2006: by building software to monitor and manage critical backup power systems. Since then, the Indianapolis-based startup has built out its sensor and controls software to integrate the HVAC, lighting, and other building energy assets that need to stay on during emergencies for customers like Duke University Health System (PDF), Tenet Healthcare and the U.S. Air Force (PDF).
That opens up access to a massive amount of data to use in broader energy management efforts, or to apply to demand response programs, to name a few new features Blue Pillar has rolled out in recent years. Of the 150 megawatts of backup power the company now monitors and manages, about 50 megawatts are now being put to use in such grid-facing tasks.
On Tuesday, Blue Pillar announced it’s putting this software expertise on sale in the form of its new Aurora platform. This cloud-based connection to the company’s Digital Energy Internet (Blue Pillar’s term for its internet-of-things network management software) also comes with years' worth of data collected from its 160 building sites and counting, the specs on just about every backup generator known, and the ability to convert multiple protocols and data sets into an internet-ready data store for whole-building energy analysis.
“You could argue we’re the largest microgrid control company in the world,” Tom Willie, Blue Pillar’s CEO, said in an interview this week. “We’re using these connectivity layers within the facility,” from legacy Modbus and BACnet building protocols to wireless ZigBee and cellular, “and translating all the energy and all the ways the pieces of equipment would talk, into a secure IP layer.” That’s a brief description of Blue Pillar’s Avise Insite platform, which runs all its current installations and is traditionally hosted on-site, though it’s been available in a cloud-hosted version since 2012.
Meanwhile, “once we have it connected, then we pull it into a database historian that very much resembles what OSIsoft has done on the meter data side,” he said. “We store it, so that any third-party application can come down and utilize the control and the data within those assets to provide higher-order operations.”
“This was never productized; we were using it as the backdrop to how we got Avise Insite into our facilities,” he added. Blue Pillar has already done some work for its customers based around Aurora’s data-crunching capabilities, like delivering energy-use-per-square-foot data to one of its big healthcare clients, Willie said.
Blue Pillar has also been building dashboards and providing analysis for the C-suite level, from disaster recovery and storm resiliency planning to broader, portfolio-wide analysis of energy spend and risk. Tuesday’s launch includes a cloud-based platform, dubbed Avise Foresite, to make this executive-level software suite available to a broader audience.
“The big concerns from these senior executives at the corporate level are the same thing utilities are facing with a retiring workforce: how are you going to protect yourself at the local level when that facility guy retires?” said Willie, who previously served as CEO of smart grid communications company Current. “They have to add data, networking, connectivity, and bring that all up to speed. […] They need a centralized facilities management strategy, with visibility around operations, events, and disaster recovery.”
That’s an important precursor to any grid-facing actions, he noted. Blue Pillar’s customers are concerned first and foremost with reliable, always-on power. But backup generators need to be tested occasionally to ensure that reliability -- and if a customer can schedule those tests at times when the utility or grid operator needs to reduce peak loads, they’ve just provided a grid service, perhaps one worth being paid for.
From executing on early opportunities like these, Blue Pillar has grown its demand-response-enabled portfolio to about 50 megawatts, mostly in Florida and Texas, as well as in New York with Consolidated Edison, he said. “They are sending us the market signals, and we’re doing the control for them on the generation assets.” A significant portion of the country’s demand response capacity comes from backup diesel generators, in fact, with DR aggregators like EnerNOC, Comverge and Constellation Energy tapping them for their portfolios.
Of course, many states put strict limits on how often emergency diesel generators can run, which precludes markets like California, Willie said. Beyond traditional backup generators, Blue Pillar is preparing to incorporate energy storage control and dispatch, combined heat and power and solar PV into its system, he said, building on a particular flavor of “microgrid” that starts with always-on power as its core principle.
“A microgrid is a variety of different things to different people, but it’s primarily offsetting base generation with local generation. The combination of solar and DG is really meant to offset what’s coming from the utility,” he said. “Beyond that is peak demand avoidance,” or offsetting the demand charges incurred when a building exceeds a certain threshold of allotted energy -- although many critical facilities are far less worried about those charges than making sure their generators are ready for a real emergency, he noted.
Blue Pillar has raised about $10 million from investors including Claremont Creek Ventures, Arsenal Venture Partners, Allos Ventures and OnPoint Technologies, the U.S. Army's venture capital fund. However, it is far from alone in seeking to turn critical facilities into energy-smart, grid-responsive assets. Over the past few years, most of the big energy services giants have rolled out cloud platforms promising everything from efficiency project management to real-time building energy optimization, with names likeSchneider’s StruxureWare, Honeywell’s Attune, Siemens’ Apogee andJohnson Controls’ Panoptix.
Most of these companies remain interested in selling their equipment and services along with their cloud-based software, Willie noted. At the same time, they’re ideal partners for Blue Pillar’s data and device integration capabilities, he said.
“We’ll never compete with the Honeywells, Schneiders and Johnson Controls if we have to manually do all the stuff that you have to do to tune up a facility so that software is able to manage it,” he noted. That presumes a certain level of investment in automated building controls -- but then, Blue Pillar’s customers have already had to make that investment to make sure they’re prepared for disaster.
The real question then becomes what can be done with that platform. Blue Pillar is hoping new customers of its software will help it find out. “Aurora is a big-data platform, but it’s not our sole purpose in life to analyze big data,” Willie said. “Can you call me on my cellphone if a transformer is overloaded at 2 a.m.? That’s what people want: actionable intelligence that’s produced from the data and addresses improving a result.”