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Virtual power plant specialist Swell Energy unveils software platform ahead of 80MW Hawaii project

Image: Swell Energy.

Swell Energy, a US company specialising in virtual power plant (VPP) projects aggregating residential solar PV and battery storage, has launched a distributed energy resources management system (DERMS) software platform. 

Swell Energy has won VPP contracts representing more than 300MWh of battery storage, with utilities Souther California Edison (SCE) and Hawaiian Electric Co (HECO), as well as a smaller project with Con Edison in New York. It has raised US$450 million in financing to date. 

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Last week the company announced the launch of GridAmp, Swell’s proprietary DERMS platform which will do the technological heavy lifting to aggregate distributed energy resources (DERs) like battery storage and rooftop solar arrays to form much larger energy or grid services resources. 

The Hawaii VPP project will be the first to see GridAmp brought onboard. The project has already been approved by the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and will see 80MW of new and existing customer-sited resources across three islands in the Pacific US state leveraged to help HECO. 

The software uses optimisation algorithms and machine learning models to inform and automate the operation of aggregated systems. It can maximise revenues for both the utility and the end-customer, across multiple value streams, Swell Energy claimed. This includes co-optimisation across multiple ’stacked’ value streams that come from delivered different applications. 

In an in-depth two part interview series with last year, Swell Energy CEO Suleman Khan said that one of the main drivers for the Hawaii project is to allow HECO to maximise its use of wind energy that might otherwise be lost. 

Home battery storage systems will be charged with wind energy considered surplus to grid requirements at times of overproduction.

“So we’re basically helping HECO not clip excess wind energy. We’re storing that excess wind energy, which is a big deal, given how much wind HECO has and consumption at night,” Khan said. 

This application, although important, is only one of several the VPP will perform: it will also help the utility with its ramp up and ramp down of solar and other resources as well as performing frequency regulation. Khan described the latter as a fairly “benign” use of batteries from a cycling standpoint, requiring “short, direct hits into the grid”.

In other territories, the applications the VPPs will be directed to perform vary depending on the needs of the utility contracting for them. 

For one of two projects with SCE in California, Swell’s VPP will be at a new home development. By using aggregated customer resources, the utility company can defer the need to spend money and resources building out electric distribution network infrastructure to meet the growth in load. 

In New York, Swell has also been contracted to provide a ‘non-wires solution’ for Con Edison, deploying about 500kW of home battery storage to mitigate need for capital expenditure on substation equipment upgrades.  

The VPPs will do all of this while also offering homeowners with the means to use their own solar-generated power and keep some energy in reserve for backup in the case of emergencies and outages. 

Swell Energy CEO Suleman Khan said in a statement that the new software enables the co-optimisation of the “VPP experience”.

“GridAmp co-optimises the VPP experience for end-users and the utility, fundamentally enhancing value and customer participation in generating, consuming, and transacting renewable electricity,” he said.

Last September, the VPP specialist revealed that the 6,000 or so participating homes in the Hawaii VPP programme on the islands of O’ahu, Maui and Hawaii Island would receive around US$1,500 per battery device over the project’s five-year lifetime. A customer with as many as three battery systems at their home could get back US$11,700 over that time

In the middle of last year, HECO also began a ‘Battery Bonus’ scheme, offering one-time cash incentives to residential and commercial customers on Oahu that get battery storage to pair with their solar PV. 

Swell Energy works with equipment from numerous OEMs on its VPPs, including Tesla’s Powerwalls. CEO Suleman Khan was working at Tesla in 2015 when the original Powerwall was launched, having taken his background in structure finance into the renewable space and then energy storage.

California’s big three utilities keen to understand value of VPPs

In December, Swell Energy said it is among manufacturers and solution providers in the DERs space working to identify new use cases for residential grid services with California’s three main investor-owned utilities (IOUs): SCE, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E).

The three utilities are working to expand the participation of residential resources in their Capacity Bidding Programs, ensuring their networks have sufficient power and can reduce the load they draw from the CAISO grid, particularly during the emergency situations and outage scenarios that have been experienced over the last few years. 

In addition to its two existing VPPs with SCE, Swell Energy will work to identify further applications for residential solar and storage assets, so that they could be used to help balance the grid in different scenarios and use cases. 

In PG&E’s service area, Swell Energy will enroll solar-plus-storage customers directly into the Capacity Bidding Program, managing their systems during periods of high demand or high wholesale electricity prices. 

SDG&E’s own Capacity Bidding Program has only been open to commercial and industrial (C&I) customers thus far — Swell Energy will help the utility broaden that out to include residential systems too. 

In October Swell Energy announced a 45MWh VPP contract with a different kind of California energy supplier: the company signed up with community choice aggregator (CCA) energy supplier Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) for the provision of energy capacity and back up power to a region beset with public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), selective grid blackouts triggered during wildfire seasons.

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