As someone who has never been able to understand why advances in battery technology haven’t kept pace with the exponential advances and price drops we’ve seen in data storage and processing technologies, I’m gratified to know that just as software has helped to advance data storage, it’s helping to advance energy storage, as well.
That realization was my key takeaway from a conversation I had with John Jung, CEO of Greensmith Energy Management Systems, a Rockville, Md.-based provider of — you guessed it — energy management systems. Greensmith’s core customers are electric utilities that use its energy storage management technology to make smart grids smarter and more resilient.
Jung took me through the thought process that spawned the company:
When we sat down in 2008 to develop what was at that time energy storage as viewed from the standpoint of a box of batteries, we said that wasn’t the best way to look at it, because people are going to continue to innovate on batteries to make them better and cheaper. That’s not the way you create a lot of enterprise value in a short period of time. What we thought was that we needed to focus on what was actually done with the energy storage system, and answer the bigger question of how you control and manage hundreds if not thousands of energy storage systems distributed across the network. Whether it’s on the utility side of the meter or the private side of the meter, and adjacent to different smart grid assets, within an environment where the IT standards are different for every single utility across the planet, that’s what we spent approximately $9 million to build in. We went about developing APIs and integration layers—what I used to call “middleware” a long time ago—as well as encrypting the data that permeated a lot of written rules and regulations for public entities such as utilities.
It sounded like the technology could just as easily be put to great use in electric cars, so I asked Jung whether Greensmith is doing any work in the area of battery technology in that space. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who was smart enough to come up with that idea:
In terms of getting involved in actual EV [electric vehicle] projects, we think that could be on the horizon, because we have a software stacks that includes a battery management system. This is a system that not only manages the performance and longevity of these batteries, but also manages the ability for these batteries to be handled safely. We deliver a stationary storage system. When you have a mobile storage system, which arguable is what an EV car is, that’s definitely another opportunity for us to leverage the technologies we’ve developed. The key is how to maximize the performance and safety of these batteries going forward, particularly on the lithium ion side. It’s not a contract that we’ve drawn up, but when you’re not a battery manufacturer, and instead focus on what’s done with the battery, it allows you to have a flexible business model that can be collaborative with the EV industry, as well.
I asked Jung to what extent software is the answer to making significant advances in battery technology. In terms of percentages, he said it’s the majority, and he explained why:
Regardless of how innovative the battery is, you need to optimize how it goes about contributing to a customer need—that’s where battery management systems become important. As I take a look at my business and the industry of energy storage, people are waking up—our customers and partners certainly see this—to the fact that there’s a big difference between valuable energy storage that’s part of a smarter grid in a distributed network that’s intelligent, and someone coming out and stating they have a battery that’s better than any other battery for all time. So the software aspect is incredibly valuable.