Sentient Energy: smart grid breakthrough?

Technology review for Sentient Energy

This data-file is a technology review for Sentient Energy, assessing innovations in smart grids. Its technology can achieve energy savings via a combination of “Conservation Voltage Reduction” and “Volt-VAR optimization at the grid edge”. This also helps to integrate more solar and EV charging into power grids. We will explain the technology below and in the data-file.

Sentient Energy is as an “intelligent sensing platform for grid utilities”, helping power utilities to identify and remediate grid issues. It has “the largest mesh network line sensor deployments in North America”. It is a private company. It was founded in 2009, headquartered in Frisco, TX and employs around 150 people. Its products are used by over 25 of North America’s largest utilities, and have helped reduced outage time by 20%, patrol costs by 60% and clocked up 1bn+ intelligent sensor hours in the field.

Volt-VAR optimization at the grid edge is the focus in about one-third of Sentient’s patents, and the focus in our technology review. So what does this mean?

Why does Volt-VAR optimization matter? Imagine a group of houses, all connected to a single grid loop. Nominally, all of them “draw power at 120 Volts”. But in practice, voltage falls off slightly, as you get further from the sub-station (look at the green dots in the chart below). This is because the inevitable creation of electro-magnetic fields “consumes reactive power” (VARs). Park this thought for now.

Sometimes the grid is strained, power prices are very high, and there is a risk of load-shedding. In times like this, it is common for a utility to save energy via “Conservation Voltage Reduction”. If you remember that Power = Voltage x Current, then clearly you can save power by lowering the voltage at the sub-station by 1-5%. It might take a little bit longer for the kettle to boil. But basically nothing is going to break.

What limits Conservation Voltage Reduction is that there is a minimum acceptable voltage. No customer should see their voltage fall below this level. And thus in our image below, we can only lower the voltage at the sub-station by 4 Volts before the ‘pink dots’ below, which tend to be customers furthest from the sub-station, hit the lower limit. But most of the time, a utility is simply guessing here. It has data about the sub-station, which it owns and operates. But it may have hardly any data at all about what is happening downstream of the sub-station.

Technology review for Sentient Energy

Enter “Volt-VAR optimization at the grid edge”. The idea is to place dozens of smart optimization devices around the grid. They can detect the voltage in real time, and they can “inject reactive power” to boost voltage at the critical places where voltage is becoming unacceptably low. There have been several studies and over 10,000 deployments of these devices to date. They can typically increase the power savings during Conservation Voltage Reduction by 2-3x. I.e., during times when power grids are under-supplied, total energy savings of 3-5% can safely be achieved, by safely lowering the sub-station voltage, almost imperceptibly for customers.

This also helps smooth the volatility of solar. One study has shown a 72% reduction in voltage volatility from installing a swarm of grid-edge optimization devices. In turn, this kind of improvement in a grid’s ability to tolerate voltage fluctuations can unlock something like 45% more solar hosting capacity. If smart inverters and dynamic voltage controllers are employed together, than the solar hosting capability can be improved by 60%.

Related research, which may be helpful in explaining the terminology in this short note includes our overview of how power grids work, overview of reactive power compensation, long-distance power transmission, transformers and how hot temperatures strain power grids. We think optimization of the power grid is going to be a $1trn pa opportunity in the energy transition.

In conclusion, our technology review for Sentient Energy finds 3-5% energy savings and great solar penetration can be achieved using smart energy systems. Our assessment on Sentient Energy’s technology, the moat in its patents, and further data-points gleaned from its white papers can be found in the data-file below.

Blockchain: why so energy intensive?

energy costs for Blockchain

A single Bitcoin transaction currently uses c1,000kWh of electricity, which is 1 million times more than a traditional payment. Hence this 8-page note aims to explain how blockchain works, why it has been so energy intensive in the past, and how the energy multiplier could be reduced to maybe 100 – 1,000 x in a best case future scenario. Thus there could be a role for blockchain in some use cases in the energy transition.

Inspection costs: drones versus traditional quality control?

costs of drone inspections

This data-file estimates the costs of drone inspections, for the construction and resources industries, using bottom-up numbers from technical papers.

Costs per hour can be 30% lower than for traditional quality control inspections. A single drone, including software licenses likely costs c$30k, which is disaggregated line-by-line.

The data-file also quantifies the capabilities of drones to monitor carbon accumulatio in forests, capturing the details of ten technical paper from the past decade, which used LiDAR to measure DBH (below).

Our notes from technical papers are also included in the data-file.

Companies in drones and drone services for construction?

screen of companies manufacturing drones

The aim of this data-file is a simple screen of companies manufacturing drones and commercializing drone software. In includes 12 private companies and 4 public companies. For each company, we have tabulated their history, geography, number of patent filings and a short description.

Smart Energy: technology leaders?

Smart energy systems

Smart energy systems are capable of transmitting and receiving real-time data and instructions. They open up new ways of optimizing energy efficiency, peak demand, appliances and costs. Over 100M smart meters and thermostats had been installed in the United States (including at c90M residences) and 250M have been installed in Europe by 2020.

The purpose of this data-file is to profile c40 companies commercializing opportunities in smart energy monitoring, smart metering and smart thermostats. The majority are privately owned, at the venture or growth stage. We also tabulate their patent filings.

We find most of the offerings will lower end energy demand (by an average of 7%), assist with smoothing grid-volatility, provide appliance-by-appliance demand disaggregations and encourage consumers to upgrade inefficient or potentially even defective appliances. Numbers are tabulated in the data-file to quantify each of these effects.

Further research. Our recent commentary that summarises the key points on Smart energy systems is linked here. Our outlook on the most conductive metals used in the energy transition is linked here.

The ascent of drones?

ascent of drones

In 2019, we argued drones would be the single most disruptive technology to gain share in the 2020s, with potential to save over 500MTpa of CO2 emissions, while re-shaping urban consumption, retail and manufacturing (note here).

This data-file aims to tabulate key news flow and data-points around the ascent of drone technologies, across dozens of news stories, running back to 2016. We find an acceleration of activity due to COVID. Full details are overleaf.

Technology transitions: thinking fast and slow?

Pace of adoption for energy transition technologies

It takes 15-100 years for a new technology to ramp from 10% to 90% of its peak adoption rate. But what determines the pace? This 15-page note finds answers by evaluating 20 examples that changed the world from 1870 to 2020. We derive four rules of thumb, in order to quantify the pace at which different energy transition technologies will scale up.

Ventures for an Energy Transition?

Oil Major Venture Investments

This database tabulates almost 300 venture investments made by 9 of the leading Oil Majors, as the energy industry advances and transitions.

The largest portion of activity is now aimed at incubating New Energy technologies (c50% of the investments), as might be expected. Conversely, when we first created the data-file, in early-2019, the lion’s share of historical investments were in upstream technologies (c40% of the total). The investments are also highly digital (c40% of the total).

Four Oil Majors are incubating capabilities in new energies, as the energy system evolves. We are impressed by the opportunities they have accessed. Venturing is likely the right model to create most value in this fast-evolving space.

The full database shows which topic areas are most actively targeted by the Majors’ venturing, broken down across 25 sub-categories, including by company. We also chart which companies have gained stakes in the most interesting start-ups.

The Top Technologies in Energy

Top Technologies for Energy Transition

The top technologies for energy transition are aggregated in this data-file, scoring their economics, technical readiness, and decarbonization potential, as assessed apples-to-apples across 1,000 pieces of research in Thunder Said Energy energy transition research.

Specifically, for each technology, we have summarized the opportunity in two-lines. Then we score its economic impact, its technical maturity (TRL), and the depth of our work on the topic to-date.

The output is a ranking of the top technologies in the energy transition, by category; and a “cost curve” for the total costs to decarbonize global energy.

Specifically, the world’s energy system will rise from 70,000 TWH pa of useful energy in 2021 to well over 100,000 TWH of useful energy by 2050. All else equal, this would increase global CO2e emissions from 50GTpa to 80GTpa. But the opportunities in this data-file can decarbonise the global energy system almost 3x over by 2050.

Our roadmap to net zero picks as many bars as possible from the left-hand size of the energy transition cost curve, to achieve the most decarbonization for the lowest cost. The most economical roadmap has an average abatement cost of $40/ton. The contribution of each technology, and energy transition cost of each technology are modelled out in the back-up tabs.

A breakdown of the top technologies for energy transition. We see around 20% of all decarbonization coming from renewables (wind, solar, next-generation nuclear), efficiency technologies that do ‘more with less’ (electric vehicles, electrification, power-electronics, advanced materials, advanced manufacturing), switching coal to gas (50-60% lower CO2 per MWH), carbon capture and storage (CCS, blue hydrogen, CO2-EOR, CO2-to-materials) and nature based solutions to climate change (reforestation, conservation agriculture, blue carbon).

A long list of over 1,000 companies that have crossed our screens is also aggregated in the final tab of the data-file, as a reference, for decision-makers looking for a list of companies in the energy transition.

Autonomous vehicles: where’s the IP?

patent activity for autonomous vehicles

This data-file quantifies the number of patents filed into autonomous vehicles, by year, by geography and by patent family, looking across 37,000 patent filings since the year 2000. Patent activity for the technology developing autonomous vehicles has risen at a 27% CAGR over the past decade, indicating a rapid pace of research activity.

The leading patent filers are ranked, including some of the world’s leading automotive companies, tech companies and retail companies. It is interesting to compare the relative activity levels among companies such as Denso, MobilEye, TuSimple, Uber, Waymo and Zoox (recently acquired by Amazon), versus Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Volvo et al.

Our notes and a data-pull of all the underlying 2019 patents follow. We find autonomous vehicles could entrench a 10% acceleration in road travel post-COVID, and displace c15% of all air-miles on sub-1,000 mile journeys.

Key findings on patent activity for technology developing autonomous vehicles and most active OEMs are listed in the article sent out to our distribution list here.

Copyright: Thunder Said Energy, 2019-2023.