This is an energy storage startup you need to know about

Inside a sunlit, cramped office near San Francisco’s financial district, entrepreneur and former political operative Susan Kennedy has been leading a team that is at the forefront of the emerging market for energy storage. The company, Advanced Microgrid Solutions, was in stealth mode until it became one of a handful of companies that recently won contracts — and a whopping 50 MW order — to build and manage large installations of batteries in buildings for utility Southern California Edison.

But unlike other companies on that list, Advanced Microgrid — founded in 2012 and funded with private equity from undisclosed sources — isn’t a big energy company, nor has it otherwise built a history of delivering on projects. And, on a side note, in the male-dominated energy industry Kennedy’s executive team boasts more women than men.

Susan Kennedy

An advisor to Advanced Microgrid Solutions, Nancy Pfund, described Kennedy as “a talented individual” who “has a good lay of the land in terms of knowing what’s compelling for utilities.” Pfund is a managing partner with DBL Investors, a San Francisco venture capital firm that invested in Tesla Motors and SolarCity. Tesla is building a large battery factory for both its cars and the kind of energy storage projects that Advanced Microgrid is developing.

The backgrounds of Kennedy and her co-founders shed some light on the startup’s stealthy sprint into the market. Kennedy was the chief of staff to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 that created a master plan for reducing California’s carbon emissions. Kennedy also was Gov. Gray Davis’ deputy chief of staff and cabinet secretary; communication director for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein; and a commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission.

Kennedy’s co-founder, Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, was the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in charge of its energy strategy. Pfannenstiel also chaired the California Energy Commission and before that worked at utility PG&E for twenty years.

Tesla investor Nancy Pfund with Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the launch of the Model S.

Tesla investor Nancy Pfund with Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the launch of the Model S.

Standing around the kitchen table in one corner of the San Francisco office, the petite Kennedy spoke with great energy about transforming where and how electricity is sourced and how the grid is managed.

Why energy storage is emerging now

California is at the forefront of clean energy generation, and it is undergoing two parallel tracks of change: one defined by the rise of giant solar and wind power plants in remote locations and the other by the proliferation of solar panels on homes, offices and industrial buildings.

But along with the increase in renewable energy generation on the grid comes headaches for utilities in managing the grid, which needs to be able to maintain a balance of supply and demand to avoid blackouts. That worry was one of the reasons that California began carrying out a mandate over the past year that requires its three big utilities to buy 1,325 MW worth of energy storage services by 2020 (with projects completed by 2024).

Energy storage systems can discharge quickly onto the grid to deal with any supply imbalance caused by the intermittent infusion of solar and wind energy. They can also reduce the need to build a type of natural gas power plant that ramps up quickly and is used mostly when demand spikes, but that is inefficient at burning natural gas and spews emissions.

power grid

Kennedy is keenly interested in developing and owning storage projects on commercial and industrial properties. These systems can generate a variety of sources of revenue for the company.

Battery systems can bank solar electricity for use at night or when power from the grid is expensive during certain times of the day, say a hot summer afternoon. Even without solar, the battery system can still take in energy from the grid when electric rates are low and discharge it for onsite use during the day.

Aside from making money by helping businesses use energy more efficiently, Advanced Microgrid also hopes to get paid by utilities when it curbs the amount of electricity drawn from the grid for certain minutes or hours when the utilities call for it and uses its batteries to meet the buildings’ demand during those times (this is called “demand response.”).

Having multiple streams of revenue is particularly important in these early days of building the energy storage market, when advanced batteries are expensive and there aren’t enough installed yet to reach the lower manufacturing and project development costs that will come with scale.

“The opportunity to develop energy sources at the customer side of the meter will be the next-generation change in energy,” Kennedy said. “If we succeed, then we will change demand response forever. We will make it valuable to utilities. We won’t add congestion to the grid.”

How it works

Advanced Microgrid won four contracts totaling 50MW with Edison, which still needs to secure the utilities commission’s approval for them. The startup won the contracts because it understands how to customize projects to meet Edison’s needs.

Kennedy recruited Audrey Lee, who previously worked at the utilities commission as an adviser to the commission’s president, to lead software development and battery system designs. The company’s chief commercial officer, Katherine Ryzhaya, was a power purchase agreement negotiator at Pacific Gas and Electric.

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One of the challenges for Advanced Microgrid is to figure out the size of the battery systems that are needed to meet the projected needs of the commercial buildings and the utility. There’s a penalty to be paid if Advanced Microgrid fails to deliver what Edison needs.

The startup plans to install the first 10MW of lithium-ion battery systems in clusters of commercial buildings in Orange County, Calif. Those systems will run from several hundred kilowatts to up to 1 megawatt. The company has developed in-house software for analyzing energy and other data and designing battery systems.

Advanced Microgrid is looking at buying batteries and the software for running its projects from companies that already have deployed their technologies commercially, said Kennedy. But she declined to say which companies are under consideration. Using proven technology also will be key to lining up project financing, which is also a subject she’s mum about.

If all goes well, Advanced Microgrid expects to bring online the 10MW project in Orange County by Jan. 1, 2017 and the rest of the 40MW in Los Angeles by the end of 2017.

The pressure is on for the startup to deliver. “We passed the first test by winning the bid. Now we have to prove that we can build them and create values on both sides,” Kennedy said.

An increasingly rare type of solar farm goes online in California

When the huge solar farm just outside of Las Vegas called Ivanpah opened up in early 2014, many lamented that this type of solar plant, called solar thermal, could soon become a dinosaur. Late last week another of these large solar thermal farms was officially turned on, and it truly could be one of the last of this size built in the U.S., thanks to a one-two punch of changing incentives and economics.

Large utility-scale solar panel farms use rows and rows of solar panels to directly convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Solar thermal farms, on the other hand, uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat liquid that produces steam and makes electricity from a turbine. These sites are essentially using the heat of the sun to produce electricity.

Abengoa's solar thermal farm Mojave Solar

Abengoa’s solar thermal farm Mojave Solar

Spanish power giant Abengoa celebrated the opening last Friday of a huge 280 MW solar thermal farm called Mojave Solar, built just outside of Barstow, California. The project can provide enough solar power for 90,000 homes in California, and was built across 2 square miles.

Abengoa said the site will generate $169 million in tax revenue over 25 years, provided a peak of 2,200 construction jobs, and now employs about 70 people. California utility PG&E is buying the power from Mojave Solar, and the facility will help PG&E meet California’s state mandate to generate a third of its electricity from clean power by 2020.

Abengoa finished another 280 MW solar thermal farm in Gila Bend, Arizona at the end of 2013. Years ago, power companies were as bullish on solar thermal farms as they were on solar panel farms, which are increasingly being constructed in the deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona.

The Topaz solar farm.

The Topaz solar farm, built by MidAmerican, outside of San Luis Obispo

But a few years ago the price of solar panels began to drop dramatically, from an average installation cost of $5.79 per watt in 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, to $2.71 per watt in the third quarter of 2014 (this is the average cost blended across all types of installations). Utility-scale solar panel installations can be as low as $1.68 per watt according to GTM Research.

As a result, some power companies that had solar thermal farms planned converted these sites over to solar panel facilities. Other companies that had developed businesses off of developing solar thermal sites cancelled projects in the U.S. that were no longer deemed economical and focused internationally.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

But ultra cheap solar panels are only part of the headwinds facing large utility-scale solar thermal farms in the U.S. There’s also a couple of important incentives that have been changed as well.

First off, the federal investment tax credit (ITC), which delivers a 30 percent tax credit to solar project developers, is planned to be cut to 10 percent by the end of 2016. While it could be extended, the uncertainty is threatening the construction of utility scale solar farms, using both solar thermal and solar panels. The New York Times noted in an article this weekend that there are no future large solar thermal projects planned in the U.S.

Then there’s the fact that federal incentives in the form of loan guarantees are also no longer widely available for solar thermal plants. When Ivanpah was built, it used a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. government to construct its 347,000 mirrors and three huge 450-foot towers. Likewise, Abengoa’s Mojave Solar used a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to finance construction. These types of large loans are no longer regularly coming out of the Department of Energy.

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz cutting the ribbon at solar farm Ivanpah, just outside of Las Vegas

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz cutting the ribbon at solar farm Ivanpah, just outside of Las Vegas

While large solar panel farms are still low cost enough that they could continue to be constructed, solar thermal farms the size of Ivanpah (392 MW, 5 square miles), Mojave Solar (280 MW, 2 square miles), and Solana (280 MW, 3 square miles) are far less likely to get built in the future. (Though, solar panel projects will also be impacted by the reduction of the ITC.)

Utilities calculate how much clean power they need (most likely to meet a state mandate) and then compare it to the cost of building a new natural gas plant, a wind farm or either type of solar farm. If natural gas plants, or other types of clean power, are cheaper than solar thermal facilities, then it’s an easy decision.

But large solar thermal farms could still find life outside of the U.S. They can uniquely store thermal energy at night, providing electricity far longer than solar panel farms without energy storage can.

BrightSource, which is the startup behind the Ivanpah site, recently announced a joint venture with China’s Shanghai Electric Group to build utility-scale solar thermal plants in China. Their first proposed project is to build two 135 MW solar thermal projects in the Qinghai province of China.

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