Itron and Sonnen sign storage partnership in demand-response push

Utility-focused technology and service provider Itron has announced a partnership with Sonnen, a German solar and storage provider that has made hay in Europe and Australia. The deal will see Itron integrate Sonnen’s SonnenBatterie Eco unit with Itron’s Demand Response Management System (DRMS), a system it hopes to sell to utility customers that are trying to use demand-response (DR) to smooth out their grid loads and cut their energy purchasing costs.

Essentially, this gives Itron access to the Sonnen batteries installed in a utility’s market, so that Itron can aggregate the batteries to form a larger system. The batteries can be used to store or draw energy when needed, so that the utility can avoid buying or firing up the reserve electricity generation reserves – usually gas ‘peaker’ plants.

The batteries let the utility store cheap renewable electricity when it has access to it, diverting the solar or wind into the homes of customers, where it can be used later once those assets are not generating at the same level. This helps avoid the need for peakers, but also prevents the surplus renewables from overloading the grid infrastructure – which can have a very expensive repair bill.

The next phase for DR though is much more revolutionary, and consequently, will take a long time to emerge. Over time, a utility will be able to ask devices in a customer home to alter their usage in order to optimize its grid load, such as asking all the AC units in a home to drop their usage by 5% in exchange for a rebate or cash payment.

In that example, the home needs a connected AC unit, some form of gateway service (physical or virtual) to act as the go-between the appliance and the utility, and all the back-end services needed to compensate the customer for such a service.

There are so many barriers in the way of adoption, starting with the consumer appliance penetration (they exist, but are expensive and non-standard), to the emergence of smart home service platforms (via the likes of Amazon, Apple or Google, or perhaps from existing service providers like the utility or TV service), to governments (both local, national, and global). There are so many variables that trying to chart DR adoption becomes very tricky, very quickly.

But the advantages of DR are quite apparent. Utilities are very interested in gaining any advantage, and the likes of Itron are very happy to help them lay the foundations. These are long-term projects, with low immediate upside. However, the shift to accommodate the reality that renewable sources of energy are reaching price-parity with traditional energy generation (and have done in some markets) is vital to future success – at least until nuclear fusion becomes a reality.

As such, Itron and Sonnen’s partnership is a key early step. “Our collaboration with Sonnen will help Itron deliver positive outcomes for utilities looking to take advantage of the capabilities for using distributed energy resources (DERs),” said Steve Hambric, Itron’s VP Distributed Energy Management. “We plan to partner with several other similar DER vendors so that utilities can access a broad portfolio of DER to optimize the grid and provide the customer with new choices and value. Integration of this technology is critical to helping both utilities and consumers thrive in an industry where DER are becoming more abundant.”

As for Sonnen’s view, Michelle Mapel, Sonnen’s Senior Director of Sales and Marketing said “the team at Sonnen believes in providing a clean and reliable energy future for all. By adding smart energy storage technology to solar homes, we are able to impact the way power is used both at the individual home level as well as at the utility-scale,” said “The integration of our storage solution with Itron’s DRMS allows utilities to control and manage stored energy resources using a proven and popular platform.”

One of Itron’s biggest moves in the smart grid sector came when it acquired Silver Spring Networks, for $830m, back in September. The deal gave Itron a leader in connected metering, as well as a major player in connected street lights. Silver Spring’s expertise in Wi-SUN, a utility-focused unlicensed wireless mesh protocol, led it to deals with many of Itron’s rivals, including Elster, Vision, and Landis+Gyr – totaling some 26.7m networked devices across five continents.

More recently, Itron and Utilidata announced an integration partnership, to combine Utilidata’s AdaptiVolt grid voltage optimization capabilities with Itron’s OpenWay Riva smart grid offering. AdaptiVolt will be able to be deployed on smart meters and grid infrastructure managed by Itron, so that Itron can provide the load-balancing and voltage regulation service to the utility.

In the partnership, AdaptiVolt gets augmented by all the real-time data from Itron’s managed smart meters, meaning it should be more effective than a comparable deployment that just used grid appliances like substations or distribution units.

Also just announced was a deal with NorthWestern Energy (NWE), which will see Itron provide grid modernization upgrades and services for NWE’s electricity and gas deployments in South Dakota and Nebraska. NWE also operates in Montana, and has some 718,300 customers across the three states.

The Itron contract will use OpenWay Riva, which uses a mix of IEEE 802.15.4g (Wi-SUN) for wireless links and also Power Line Communication (PLC – run over the power lines themselves) to create an IPv6 mesh network for linking up all the required assets. Itron has a number of PDFs that outline how its systems work, but for NWE, the core focus is reducing operating costs and improving customer service.

“We have been making significant investments in technology across the company and I’m very confident that our investment in advanced metering will help us provide even better service reliability to our customers in South Dakota and Nebraska,” said Curt Pohl, VP Distribution at NorthWestern Energy. “Itron’s OpenWay Riva solution will help us advance this mission by modernizing our energy infrastructure and enabling advanced functionality.”