“Utilities have previously been resistant to change and didn’t want to mess with our energy system at all if they didn’t have to. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But now it’s completely broke,” Andrew Scobie, chief executive at Faraday Grid, says, offering a damning verdict perhaps of both the legacy utilities’ attitude to emerging trends and where that attitude has got us.
“The underlying nature of the grid is unable to meet the challenges of the future. We’ve got these demands which are insoluble within the current grid architecture.”
Faraday Grid professes to have just the solution.
Spun out of Australian power services firm Exigen, Faraday Grid was founded by a team of five and led by Scobie. Its proprietary technology – the Faraday Exchanger – is what the firm is so excited about and what’s essentially led to a major strategic investment in it by energy tech firm Amp Energy last year.
The Exchanger is essentially a piece of hardware that controls voltage, frequency and power flow within transmission and distribution grids but, crucially, allows bi-directional power flow. Installed where you might otherwise see transformers, Exchangers profess to replace the likes of inverters with a scalable, cost-effective solution more fit for the 21st century.
It harks to what Scobie has billed as a fundamental issue facing the power sector in the coming years. If energy generation is changing – and it is, at breakneck speed – then how do the distribution and transmission grids change alongside it? “People have been thinking about more distributed demand, but they haven’t been thinking about what the grid ontology, the basic nature of its being, is if you’re going to support that,” he says.
And Scobie is particularly strong in his views over what will require the biggest change of thinking in the near future.
Decarbonisation remains the key driver behind the energy transition, but decentralisation is arguably what requires the most careful thought. Scobie argues that this will require a fundamental discussion about the very nature of supply and demand, with an “ever increasing” amount of digital demand being placed on largely analogue grids.
“The biggest of all those issues, by number and by value, is obviously going to be electric vehicles. On the supply side we’ve got this ever increasing amount of randomness in both the short- and long-term, and on the demand side we’ve got an ever increasing amount of volatility also,” he says.
The discussions are nothing new. National Grid has grown so tired of talking about the changing demand electric vehicles may pose, or perhaps more specifically the way in which its viewpoints have been twisted or skewed by national media, that it’s far more careful in what it says publicly now.
Scobie insists that some of the utilities and energy companies it has spoken to have spoken of a “hard limit” to EV penetration without not insignificant upgrades to the grid, and that number is “way, way, way below” estimates from policy makers and the EV market itself. “That’s not an issue of charge points, it’s the fundamental nature of the grid that underpins it and the complete inability of it to deal with the change in demand,” he says.
It’s a view that may not ring true with at least some within the EV and grid sectors. National Grid has been at great pains to alleviate any fears surrounding EV’s impact on the grid and smart chargers will, by government decree, be the minimum standard under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill that’s currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords.
Scobie, though, remains bullish. “Anybody that says that EVs might be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, they haven’t done the math,” he says.
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Lessons from telecomms
The company has been equally bullish about the Exchanger’s potential. In December last year, when it formally introduced the product, the firm heralded the device as having the ability to “change the course of history”, and being capable of enabling as much as 107TWh of additional renewable generation in the UK alone – and at no additional cost.
To put it simply, the Exchanger acts as the router of the energy system; a device which can spark a revolution in the energy world in much the same way internet routers changed the telephony system and sparked a revolution in telecommunications with the internet.
In adapting the grid to behave “in much the same way the internet does”, as Scobie suggests, many of the issues inherent with a more decentralised grid would be reduced. A significant amount of resources could be saved by capping the need for costly grid upgrades. The loss of inertia on regional systems, caused by the shift away from large conventional power stations, would no longer be mourned. Voltage could be better controlled and more ideal power factors delivered, making the entire energy system more efficient.
Comparing the device with internet routers is an interesting parallel to make given the now frequent messaging that the energy sector in general could learn a lot from telecommunications, which experienced a similarly revolutionary change when it moved from a copper wire-based switch network to a packet system, as Scobie says.
“We [the energy sector] are not going to be free from the nature of wires any time soon, but we absolutely need to alter the underlying ontology of the grid. What you had was this architecture that was very rigid, very fragile, but very efficient. That simply does not fit… we do not have the energy density in renewables which would allow you to have that as large centralised generation,” Scobie says.
Faraday Grid clearly believes it has just the answer and, as you may expect, the company has not been found wanting for potential collaborators.
Scobie says that every door the company has knocked on has been opened, with interest across the world. On these shores it is working with UK Power Networks and Scottish Power, two of the country’s DNOs, with a view to commercialising the product. Richard Dowling, appointed as the firm’s chief economist last December, says interest in the firm has been “at a pace and rate greater than we anticipated” which has helped in Series C funding.
The firm’s Edinburgh base has proven to be the perfect incubator. The city has provided ideal access to links in both industry and academic fields, which Scobie says is vital for its staff (the average qualification within the company is a PhD). The firm’s next objective will be to prove the technology works in the field and en masse. Its technology was going into testing facilities at the start of the year and a behind-the-meter deployment schedule has been struck with aforementioned investor Amp Energy.
A US-based R&D facility is also on the cards, with Faraday Grid keen on extending its reach into the significantly more complex North American market, knowing full well that the energy transition is a very global phenomenon. Should the Exchanger work as billed, then the Internet of Energy could be within reach.