Smart Power Networks is a technology start-up developing control and automation solutions for the energy sector.
It is currently looking to rollout its smart network controller, a physical device that supervises, optimises and controls energy assets in a coordinated manner.
It was one of six companies to be chosen for the Energy Systems Catapult's Innovator Support Programme, and is also involved in one of the projects that recently received a boost of government funding as part of a £20 million commitment to local energy projects.
Current± spoke to Anastasios Oulis Rousis, CEO and co-founder of Smart Power Networks, about securing government support and enabling a digitalised energy system.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Multi Vector Energy Exchange project in Liverpool?
That project will involve commercial facilities; a shopping centre, a cinema, a car park with electric vehicle charging points etc. We’re going to integrate all of these resources, creating a smart local energy network that will be run by its own local energy market.
Smart Power Networks is acting as the technical leader of the project; we're going to be using our smart network controller to coordinate the various resources. We don't know yet - because the project has just started - exactly what type of distributed assets we're going to have. But we envision at least battery storage, solar PV, potentially CHP units or heat pumps, as well as the electric vehicles as I mentioned.
What are some of the challenges to coordinating these distributed energy resources?
There are several types of challenge. First of all, we're not talking anymore about electricity only. So we're going to be coordinating resources that belong to different energy sectors. We're going to have electrified resources like solar PV, but we're going to also have heat and cooling networks too.
There are quite a few things that need to be considered. First of all, the physics underpinning the operation of the different types of networks, so the heat network and the electricity network.
Then secondly, the way the resources communicate. This is based on different types of standards and protocols, which at the moment are not interoperable. What this means is, you may have battery storage understanding a certain language, but you may have another resource, for example a heat pump, speaking a different language. So how are you going to make these two collaborate if they don't speak the same language?
We have developed within the controller what we call the data management and translation tool, which helps distributed resources speak and understand the same language by converting data to a unified system.
This project has received government funding, as well as Smart Power Networks itself being supported by the Energy Systems Catapult. How difficult is it for start-ups to get government support?
That is a good question. It's not the most straightforward thing in the world, to be honest with you, even though we have been lucky enough to be funded through Innovate UK twice.
When you start, and you are massively understaffed, you have to deal with so many things. For example, it is one thing shaping the vision of the company, it is another thing doing the actual technical development, and then going out there speaking with people, establishing collaborations and then bidding for competitions to unlock this funding. And then you need to spend a lot of time on preparing proposals. And of course, you need to have some unsuccessful tries until you get it right.
These days we have been fortunate enough there was a new system introduced from Innovate UK that I believe was very beneficial and helped us. When we started doing applications for funding the process was very lengthy. . . but then innovate UK, I believe it was last August, introduced what they call the innovation funding service. This is an online portal, which first of all has a lot of information with respect to how you develop proposals. And secondly, you respond to each question online, which makes it very, very easy, because they're not as lengthy and they're streamlined so it's more straightforward for us.
What more do you think can be done by both the government and the private sector to better enable a smarter, more digital energy system?
There's no easy answer on that. What I believe is necessary from the side of the government is to put in place appropriate regulation. When you work in a regulated industry, like the one we're working in, everything is driven by regulation. So it is up to the government to introduce appropriate policy and regulation to somehow direct all innovators and private companies generally to develop solutions necessary for a truly smart energy system.
From the side of companies like ourselves, which includes the investment community which are necessary to put the money in, they will need to become more risky.
What happens is the big companies of our sector stay on the side until a smaller company has developed, trialed and finalised something great and then they acquired them, which makes absolute sense. But we want them to become more risky. So give us opportunities to develop our solutions and maybe test them, pilot them, into their own activities.
And then from the investors, what would be necessary is again to be more risky. So put in their money without having this, you know, absolute certainty with respect to return.