The energy grid is old, and that’s why a new federal agency is pushing high-risk, high-reward research in an effort to turn innovative ideas into infrastructure that powers the nation.

Known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, the agency within the U.S. Department of Energy follows the model of the better-known defense research agency, DARPA. In 2007, President George W. Bush codified the agency’s creation, and in 2009, President Barack Obama allocated funding that made its operation today possible. Over the past several years, the agency has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into dozens of research projects focusing on three key areas of energy grid technology: software, hardware and energy storage.

One of the most outstanding limitations of today’s energy grid is that it was conceived and developed in an era that had not envisioned a future powered by the sun, the wind and data. In an ARPA-E promotional videoMichael Aziz, Harvard Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies, explains the value of new types of energy storage: “The biggest obstacle to us getting a large fraction of our electricity from wind and sunshine is their intermittence. So if we could mass produce a battery that safely and cost-effectively stores massive amounts of electrical energy, we could solve this problem.”

Putting ARPA-E Funds to Work

ARPA-E awarded researchers at Harvard University $4.3 million to further their research on flow batteries, a type of storage device that could hold up to 10 times more energy by volume than traditional storage devices. Today’s electric grid needs such batteries if it’s to support wind and solar power, which can sometimes go days without supplying power. Today, solar power accounts for about one-tenth of a percent of the electricity produced in the country, said Harvard Professor Roy Gordon. Parts of California and Hawaii are able to flood the grid with solar power, Gordon noted, but overall the amount of energy storage available is still inadequate.

For new software platforms that power the grid, ARPA-E is funding big data projects. The agency awarded AutoGrid -- whose technology analyzes the data generated by smart meters, building management systems, voltage regulators, thermostats and other equipment -- $3.4 million, and the technology is now being deployed around the nation, in such places as Oklahoma, California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. The electricity industry is one of the last industries to take advantage of the big data wave, and there’s a lot of potential in doing so, said Sandra Kwak, director of marketing for AutoGrid.

“I would say we’ve barely scratched the surface of the total amount of value that can be recouped from smart grid services,” Kwak said. “If you look at the smart grid in terms of layers, the first layer was smart meters, the second layer was collection of data from those meters, so data management, but now that we’ve collected the data, what do you do with the data? The layer on top of that -- that hasn’t rolled out to the mainstream yet -- is the analytics layer that actually tells you what to do with that data.”

AutoGrid fills that gap, she explained. “Ultimately, what these big data processing engines will do is allow utilities to utilize their existing infrastructure instead of building new power plants,” she said, noting that in the past, utilities had maybe 12 points of data per year – one power meter reading per month – but SmartGrid allows utilities to make decisions based on 3,000 points of data.

“With real-time information, AutoGrid is bringing their applications to market to assist utilities in fully utilizing their assets they have on the grid,” she said. “We actually have the ability to balance supply and demand of power in real time, and we have a complete inventory of every single asset that’s on the grid. […] We can send out text messages, app identifications, phone calls to end users of electricity, and also utilize existing communication channels and protocols and existing hardware in the field. We can send out network communications and ask thermostats to turn down by a couple of degrees, or shift power in between rooftop units. One of the programs that we’re running in Austin Energy involves electric vehicle owners so we can send that price signal to EV owners and tell them it’s a good time or a bad time to charge their car.”

Controlling the Flow of Power

ARPA-E is also driving research in hardware to provide data and controls for platforms like the ones offered by AutoGrid. Smart Wire Grid was awarded just under $4 million by ARPA-E to continue development of a wireless device that clamps onto power lines to control electricity flow.

Their device is the only one of its kind being used today, said Anuj Kapadia, senior engineer at Smart Wire Grid. The devices are now being used by the utilities of Southern Company, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., and Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves most of Tennessee, and parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

“The technology is a power flow controller, so it controls power. In layman’s terms, you can compare that to a tap on a pipeline. You open the tap, it flows, when you close the tap, you can block the power,” Kapadia explained. “If you look at the power grid now, it’s meshed, so power flows from one point to another, but there’s no way to control it. And now because of all this complexity coming to the grid, a device like ours is very, very useful to actually control and make the grid flexible.”

The clamp-on device can be controlled by the utility wirelessly, using a protocol of the company’s choice, as the device is equipped with three different antennas. Having wireless connectivity is obviously useful, but it also presents a security risk, Kapadia said, which is why they’ve spent a lot of time making the system secure.

Having the ability to control the flow of power is immensely useful, and will continue to become more useful as the grid evolves, Kapadia said. “All these renewables are coming in; we have solar, we have wind, we have electric vehicles coming in, so there is a lot of different generations coming in from all different directions, so we need a flexible grid," he said. "It is not like before where the power flows from line A to line B and that’s about it. It’s going to be vastly used. It’s just a matter of time.”

Editor's Note: This story was edited on July 21 by request of Smart Wire Grid.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.