Smart Grid Grants: Underground Wireless and Battery-Assisted Circuits

The Department of Energy quietly handed out about $19 million in grants this week for five interesting smart grid research projects, including wireless communications to link underground and other hard-to-reach grid assets and energy storage circuits to help the grid balance on-again, off-again renewable power.

San Diego-based On-Ramp Wireless and North Andover, Mass.-based Varentec are the startups in charge of those respective projects — though it might be better to call them experiments. Wednesday’s round of grants, none larger than $6 million, are less like the huge infrastructure stimulus awards given to utilities last year, and more like the research-boosting grants from DOE’s ARPA-E project.

Take underground wireless — a useful technology for controlling the nests of cables and controls under the streets of our major cities. Most of the wireless systems used on the grid today are low-power, however, making underground sensors or controls hard to reach.

On-Ramp Wireless won $2.1 million from the DOE to “demonstrate a wireless grid sensor and faulted circuit indicator” that can do the trick. On-Ramp says its proprietary wireless technology can extend the range of low-bandwidth utility networks by hundreds of miles. It has been working with San Diego Gas & Electric on its DOE-funded GridComm project, and SDG&E, along with Southern California Edison, will be On-Ramp’s test partners on the new project as well.

On the other side of the country, Varentec got $2.3 million from the DOE to research and design a battery-assisted system to balance out voltage changes that come from the intermittent power inputs of solar panels or wind turbines. The company has an “innovative circuit design with an integrated battery energy storage system,” and will develop it with partners including New York utility ConEd, LED giant Cree (s CREE) and grid controls giant S&C Electric.

The remaining three projects are being led by much bigger companies, but still have their share of activity for startups. Take Boeing, which got $6 million to develop a “smart, highly-automated, secure, and self-healing electric distribution management system” in partnership with Chicago utility ComEd. It’s enlisting the help of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Spirae, Philadelphia-based Viridity Energy, and San Diego-based EDSA, three startups already involved in multiple grid balancing projects, including University of California at San Diego’s microgrid project.

The final two projects include $6 million for Swiss grid gear giant ABB to demonstrate a grid reliability system with utility Xcel Energy and Texas A&M university. French grid giant Areva T&D, which is in the process of being acquired by Schneider Electric, will get another $6 million to work on a platform to connect distributed renewable power into the grid — Duke Energy and DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are partners on that project.

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Image courtesy of Arizona Public Service via Creative Commons license.