With Grid Modernization Overdue, Don't Overlook Virtual Power Plants

In Brief

We've known about virtual power plants for many years, but strain on electricity grids from climate disasters puts the software-driven approach in new context. 

Customers in Australia, Europe and the United States are relying on the smart-grid approach, and corporations are investing in it. 

So here's a refresher and look ahead at how virtual power plants make electricity greener, and how they can do so at utility scale. 

A vendor in Brooklyn, where hot days currently bring dirty power for cooling.

A transmission tower falling into the Mississippi River in late August sent New Orleans into weeks of darkness, highlighting the need for capital to speed deployment of small-scale clean power systems around the world’s waterfront cities. A few weeks earlier, Tesla showed how an established software-driven fix called a virtual power plant is drawing more investment from private sources. When the lights can go out in a blink, electricity that can rush into a community in an instant strikes more investors as worth a hard look.

In July, Tesla notified customers in California that they could look forward to drawing power from an aggregation of Powerwall battery systems. The customers participating in the program, which the company said could reach 50,000, can draw on their battery systems during peak demand periods. (While other outlets have analyzed the restrictions on Powerwalls' room to run, the systems are nonetheless becoming more focal in Californians' energy choices.)

The demonstration comes months after the Hawaiian Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a $25 million contract with Swell Energy to deliver "dispatchable power" to as many as 6,000 customers with home systems on Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii islands. It also follows a partnership hatched further across the Pacific Ocean between Next Kraftwerke and Toshiba Energy Systems and Solutions Corp to set up VPPs in Japan that can predict demand and match it with renewable supply. 

What has driven cash to these enterprises across the world? How can they sit at the center of utility-scale strategies when consensus among policymakers says that a decarbonized economy needs new transmission rather than software to plug emergency supply gaps?

The bet begins with VPPs’ flexibility. They can provide variable amounts of power across networks of installed batteries, depending on the consumption and generation patterns their code can read. A VPP builds algorithms from real-time  feed-in data, weather forecasts, consumption data, and historical trends to forecast electricity prices and communicates the price signals to the networked assets.

Consider Swell Energy, based in Southern California, which rolled out two VPP programs for around 8,000 customers in its home base in May 2021. Participating homeowners use solar energy to charge their battery systems and use energy when the electricity is inexpensive as well as use the stored energy as back-up in outages. Under the programs’ design, homeowners can in some circumstances earn grid revenue when they use stored energy during peak hours.

Such a model has reached traction in Europe. Next Kraftwerke, founded in 2009, manages 11,049 aggregated units and 9 GW of networked capacity at present. Next Kraftwerke says its algorithms process data of networked assets, weather, price exchanges and the grid condition to forecast feed-in data of the aggregated assets. At a smaller scale, Vermont’s utility Green Mountain Power has put in approximately 2500 utility-controlled storage systems in homes, adding up to 13 MW. It has claimed that by discharging batteries to the grid during peak hours, it created $3 million in value  that would have otherwise flowed to grid operators.

So, while policymakers grope for ways to reinforce the grid, do these use cases suggest that returns will flow at greater multiples to those who invest now in VPPs?  Around the world, these systems seem to hold up as one of many possible strategies. Next Kraftwerke talks on its website about how the VPP program it designed enabled the KBB Biogas plant, with 600 KW of total output, to balance reserves and optimize the cost of its power production. VPPs potentially provide something like a turnkey solution to buyers, providers or regulators who have promised to cut fossil fuel use. Their vendors – including Tesla - promise to help customers avoid costs as they seek investments from financial institutions who are facing pressure to decarbonize their asset portfolios.

Under a 2018 agreement, Tesla has set up VPP services to as many as 3000 homes in South Australia. Within 6 months of the operation of the 100 MWh battery project in Australia in May 2018, Tesla reported saving 90% of the cost of normal grid services, due to relatively cheap and clean batteries. A look at some deals from 2020 shows different paths to scale.

So while policymakers grope for ways to reinforce the grid, do these use cases suggest that returns will flow at greater multiples to those who invest now in VPPs?



OhmConnect, a startup for residential demand response, signed a $100 million deal with Alphabet-backed Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan to scale 550 MW of VPP in the next three years. OhmConnect will use 80% of the capital to equip homes in California with free controllable devices such as smart plugs and smart meters and will use the remaining equity internally. Swell created a VPP financing vehicle with Ares Management and Aligned Climate Capital to raise $450 million to deploy 14,000 solar energy generation and home storage systems . The financing works with the utility contracts serving as fixed revenue stream for providing grid needs during peak hours. Relevantly, California’s utility PG&E has promised its regulator that it wills procure at least 716.9 MW of capacity to improve grid reliability between August 2021 and August 2023.

The Joint Venture between Next Krafwerke and Toshiba solutions to scale VPP solutions globally demonstrate another financing structure In August, Shell acquired Next Kraftwerke that would further enable Shell to add renewable portfolios to its asset class and accelerate its move towards decarbonized energy.

At the other end of the market, VPP services can eliminate pollution in communities where fossil fuels aggravate environmental injustice. That’s because their delivery can replace “peaker plants,” which usually switch on with dirty fuel sources near low-income housing. According to New York Public Service Commission, peaker plants  usually burn gas or even fuel oil, and emit twice the greenhouse-gas equivalent of a conventional power source.  An advocacy group, the PEAK Coalition, argues in concert with the nationwide Clean Energy Group that New York City’s peakers "generate the most expensive energy in the country". If VPP vendors can finance battery installation for thousands of customers in environmental-justice communities, they can also deliver cleaner peak power to these families. 

Summer’s death toll in the United States and Europe shows that existing systems need radical new investment to stand up to the threat of spiraling climate disaster. In that context, expect VPPs to demand more attention.

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