Optimal gives electricity grid a better 'brain'

If you want a smarter grid, think Cisco, says start-up Optimal Technologies. You need a network operating system that can route traffic better.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read

Electricity grids would be a lot smarter if they just knew themselves better, says Roland Schoettle, the CEO of smart-grid start-up Optimal Technologies.

The 8-year-old company on Tuesday released its first commercial product, an application called Aempfast that gathers and crunches data on power grid operations.

The problem with today's creaky electricity system is not a lack of power generation. The problem is traffic jams, Schoettle said.

Smart-grid providers apply IT to electricity networks. Silver Spring Networks

"We have a glut of generation in the U.S. The problem is that the network can't get the generation to the right loads. It gets stuck in congestion in the network," he said.

Optimal Technologies' algorithm takes data from different sources and presents grid operators with a view of the network. Using the company's analytical software, a utility could forestall a power outage by using resources more efficiently, Schoettle said.

For example, a utility could decide on how best to utilize a solar power plant given the expected weather on a given day, or decide what to do about a broken substation.

The company has tested its software with utilities with good results, Schoettle said. It expects to announce initial customers in the coming months, he added.

Later this year, it will release another application, called Surefast, that will give building owners tools to monitor and optimize their energy usage.

The power grid needs an operating system to reduce congestion, says Optimal Technologies. Its Aempfast application gathers data to give operators more control over their grid. Optimal Technologies

What's a smart grid anyway?
Smart-grid technology is becoming one of the more active areas in green tech.

Optimal Technologies raised $25 million from Goldman Sachs last October, one of several such start-ups to get funding.

That's because power grids tend to be antiquated and due for a technological overhaul. Many companies, like Optimal Technologies, EnerNoc, and Silver Spring Networks, are using IT to get better data and control over energy in the network.

But beyond calling themselves "smart grid" providers, many of these companies are doing very different things.

Some companies develop software for utilities, while others are building the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) that will go into people's homes.

Not surprisingly, Schoettle said that focusing on network efficiency is really the key.

"There's absolutely a glut of people who say they do smart grids, but they don't give the system a better brain," he said, arguing that many smart-grid projects at utilities haven't been successful.

One hurdle facing them all is the conservative nature of utilities when adopting new technologies and giving other companies access to their data.

And because of regulations, many utilities don't have the same incentive to conserve energy as they do to produce it, according to smart-grid companies.