The internet of energy has arrived, Scottish start-up claims

Matthew Williams, Chief Technology Officer of Faraday Grid, gives a live demonstration of a 3-phase Faraday Exchanger at a US Launch event in Washington D.C, March 2019. [Faraday Grid]

Faraday Grid, a clean tech start-up based in the UK, has launched a global marketing offensive for its latest transformer, saying it could do for electricity networks what the router did for the telecoms sector in the 1990s.

With the advent of digitalisation, the electricity industry has been abuzz with speculation about an “Uber moment” that will revolutionise the sector.

Faraday Grid claim they have what they’ve all been waiting – or dreading – for years.

“We’ve invented the router of the electricity system,” said Matthew Williams, one of the co-founders of the Scottish start-up.

“I like to compare it to the internet,” he told EURACTIV in an interview, saying he sees Faraday Grid as “a platform company” rather than a tech firm trying to sell a new device to prospective clients.

European power grid operators gear up for digital transformation

The next wave of digital innovation – and disruption – in the electricity sector will rely on artificial intelligence and Blockchain technology, according to the new boss of the European power grid operators association, ENTSO-E, who is drafting an IT roadmap for publication later this year.

Power networks were originally designed to carry vast amounts of electricity from large power plants to the end consumer. But with growing shares of variable electricity coming from a multitude of smaller-scale wind and solar plants, power networks are coming under unprecedented strain.

In Germany alone, the cost of congestion hit a record €1.4 billion in 2017, mainly to deal with overloaded transmission networks and to prevent structural damage to the grid. And the problem is only going to get worse as more than half of Europe’s electricity is expected to come from renewables by 2030.

While researchers have been looking for ways of adapting the electricity system, none so far have come up with a straightforward solution like Faraday Grid claims to have done.

“We can enable 80% renewables. And that’s huge,” Williams says.

EU research looks into large-scale integration of renewables

EDF and EirGrid, the leading French and Irish energy companies, have won €20 million under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme to develop ways of integrating large amounts of intermittent renewable energy sources into the electricity grid.

According to Williams, Faraday exchangers are designed to be a drop-in replacement for the millions of traditional transformers that are currently scattered across the European power network.

As soon as one is installed, “it immediately makes the local electricity area better,” Williams said. And when more are added to the network, “they coordinate to form a network” similar to what routers do for the internet, he explained.

As a result, higher shares of renewables can immediately be added to the electricity system at any moment “while maintaining the stability” of the grid, he said.

So where’s the catch? Not the price, according to Williams. One Faraday exchanger is worth “the same price” as a traditional electricity transformer, he said. And cities and local authorities are in constant need of replacing old transformers with new ones, which means they can plan ahead at no additional cost.

An open question is whether Faraday Grid will actually live up to expectations. The clean tech sector is bustling with new technologies such as batteries, smart controls, or blockchain which are all aimed at making the grid more flexible and able to cope with high amounts of renewables.  

However, that hasn’t dented investor interest in the company. In January, Faraday Grid announced a $32.5 million capital increase. Soon after, it embarked on a spending spree, announcing the acquisition of a subsidiary of Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn which specialises in industrial internet of things (IOT) and smart manufacturing systems.

And although the company is secretive about its order book, it is currently running a project with UK Power Networks, which operates in the wider London area. “We’re working with them to do a proof of concept project,” Williams said.

To be sure, Williams is not afraid of the hype, insisting on the internet comparison and drawing parallels with the telecoms world. The invention of the router “transformed the old communication platform to a new one,” he said, even though it was running on the same copper wires and switches that were already there.

“We’re kind of doing the same thing with the electricity system,” he said.

Energy Web Foundation: Blockchain essential for EV growth, community solar

Distributed energy solutions such as solar PV, batteries, and smart controls are getting cheaper by the day and will soon outperform traditional energy sources such as coal, gas, and nuclear power, says Hervé Touati. In any case, Blockchain-type solutions will be needed for the mass deployment of electric vehicles, he warns.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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