Blog Post

It Takes A College Intern Project To Innovate At A Utility

Stay on Top of Emerging Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

UPDATED: Utilities are typically the financiers – not the source of – tech innovations. But San Diego Gas & Electric is breaking that mold by proposing to license a mobile charging device for plug-in electric cars to startup Juice Technologies. The technology was initially developed by a college intern project at the utility.

SDG&E has asked the California Public Utilities Commission to approve its licensing agreement with Juice. SDG&E and Juice already have carried out a pilot project to explore the market potential of this technology, and the commission is set to vote on the proposal on Dec. 16.

In the licensing proposal, SDG&E could buy a 4.99 percent stake in Juice. UPDATE: SDG&E also would receive 2 percent of the gross sales of the equipment if Juice’s revenues exceed $500,000. SDG&E would have to allocate 60 percent of the royalties it receives to its ratepayers (probably in a form of a lower bill). SDG&E can assign one of its employees to work with Juice to bring the technology to market, but its ratepayers will only be required to pay for 60 percent of up to 12 hours of the employee’s work with Juice each week.

SDG&E’s technology involves a device that connects to the car’s onboard charger and a “smart socket” that is connected to the grid. The devices will come with wired or wireless communication and authentication software.

The mobile charging equipment will allow car owners to fill up their electric cars anywhere in the utility’s territory and charge the spending to their SDG&E accounts. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office received a patent application for the technology in February this year, and the patent is still under review.

Utilities have been carrying out projects to suss out the impact of electric cars on their electricity distribution networks. They worry that the grid will buckle under the heavy demand by consumers to charge their cars, particularly if they do so during the time when electricity use already is high, such as in the afternoon, during hot summer days and early evening when people return home and turn on their appliances. The federal government has awarded more than $100 million for the demonstration and deployment of charging equipment around the country.

Juice started Plug Smart in 2007 to enter the electric car charging market. Juice has attracted some big-name investors and partners. In May, energy management hardware maker Belkin said it had made a “significant equity investment” in Juice, though the company didn’t say how much.

In February, General Electric said it would team up with Juice to develop electric car charging equipment and software. GE plans to design and make the charging equipment and use its own communication technologies to connect the hardware with utilities’ metering and communications equipment. Juice would offer the software that creates the web portal for drivers to schedule and track the charging. GE unveiled its charging equipment, called WattStation, in July.

For more research on smart grid check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Photo of WattStation, courtesy of GE

One Response to “It Takes A College Intern Project To Innovate At A Utility”

  1. Jian Zhang

    Yes, it takes a college student project to come up with the innovation. However, it also takes someone(s) within SDG&E, who saw the potential of the technology, and a cultivating environment to bring it to the market. Just think the number of the college intern projects collecting dust in bookshelves of various companies today.

    SDG&E is indeed an outlier of the typical utility by a few sigma’s and one of the most technically savvy, innovative and open to work with utilities in the US. The utility has been ranked #1 two years in a row in UtiliQ ranking. It is in its culture and the culture permeates all levels of the company starting from its President & COO Mike Niggli, who incidentally was an electrical engineer by training, to mid-level managers and staff working on various smart grid initiatives.