Smarter Automation Today for a Better Smart Grid Tomorrow

awsnluetboxUniEnergy Technologies’ next-generation energy-storage solution evens electrical loads with integrated I/O, PLCs, and higher-level automation system functions to streamline engineering, procurement and support.

As the smart grid quickly evolves into a distribution infrastructure for AC electricity with ever more sensory, interactive and transactional capabilities, a 150-year-old DC technology has re-emerged on the scene. It’s the wet-cell battery with extremely advanced chemistry in a package that’s designed, engineered and built to deliver multi-megawatt capacities and with plenty of smarts inside.

One of the world’s top suppliers of such energy-storage solutions is UniEnergy Technologies (UET), founded in 2012 near Seattle. UET’s Uni.System, is a highly scalable, next-generation energy-storage solution for utility, commercial and industrial, microgrid and other applications.

Tanks of aqueous vanadium electrolyte, plus electrode stacks, sophisticated controls and electronics are all packaged in standard 20-foot shipping containers. They are massive – one container weighs 40 tons – yet their modular plug-and-play architecture lets customers easily add as much capacity as they need.

Unlike other battery types such as lithium ion lead acid, and zinc air, UET’s technology has no capacity fade and can be fully discharged any number of times over its 20-year lifecycle without losing capacity. It also has no flammable components and no risk of thermal runaway, making it safer. The components are fully reusable or recyclable.

As a buffer between bulk energy generation and sustained energy use, the Uni.System provides near-instant energy response. For short periods from milliseconds to seconds, its batteries can absorb and inject power into a grid or circuit to help regulate AC voltages and frequencies.awsnluetlottabox

It also can supply power for medium durations from minutes up to an hour, which are typical of solar farms when clouds pass over and drop output to zero. Finally, it can help utilities shift bulk energy for periods of two to four hours. This enables them to store energy during a generation peak when grid loads are low, then discharge it during a peak.

UET’s Director of Electrical Engineering, David Ridley, says the company faced numerous challenges in bringing the Uni.System to life. Tops was the need to commercialize the vanadium electrolyte chemistry licensed from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where UET’s CEO Gary Yang headed the energy storage program. This commercialization involved designing the electrolyte tanks and pump systems, electrode stacks, instrumentation and controls to fit in a 20-foot container.

“We needed to create a control architecture that’s scalable and extensible just like our product,” Ridley explains. “That way, if customers want to add another megawatt of capacity, no problem. Our controls needed to scale easily. Once we deliver another container and hook it up, we just increment the counter in our software by one megawatt and the customer is up and running.”

Simplicity and reliability were important for both customers and UET. “The last thing our customers want is to add complexity and risk to their operations, so we had to keep everything as simple as possible to ensure availability and serviceability,” he says, noting that service contracts enhance UET’s business model. “For our service business to be profitable, we need to minimize service calls by maximizing uptime. If problems occur, we need to be able to troubleshoot and fix them remotely as much as we can.”

Low manufacturing costs and physical modularity were among Uni.System’s other design goals. That’s why the company chose shipping containers.

“They’re available as pre-built commodities, saving materials sourcing and fabrication costs,” Ridley says. “They’re also stackable and easy to transport via multimodal logistics, whether by truck, rail or ship.”

Despite being a well-funded startup with lots of potential customers, UET was mindful of conserving cash on its path to profitability. Ridley’s team knew they had to run through the steps of product development – design, engineer, prototype, test and manufacturing validation – as quickly as possible while maintaining the highest possible quality.

“Like the launch of any new product, we have to install referenceable deployments as fast as we could, which then helps us sell more,” he says. “We didn’t have time to evaluate and source the best components individually. Instead we found the best supplier with the most competitive products, plus expertise and experience in our markets.”

Ridley and his team considered many major controls suppliers in addition to their evaluation of control and electronics suppliers. They picked Siemens for several reasons, including its Totally Integrated Architecture (TIA) portfolio of highly integrated automation and control components.awsnluet

“What really stood out about Siemens is its full-line capability,” he says. “It has everything from PLCs to I/O to industrial computers to HMIs, plus a full line of SCADA software. It has variable frequency drives, circuit breakers and power supplies, motor starters and other gear. And then there’s the fact that its huge energy division is involved with large-scale utility projects all over the world.”

He noted that hundreds of Siemens customers have shaved as much as 30 percent off their development and commissioning times.

“The TIA Portal’s code libraries handle things like communication protocols, distributed I/O, interfacing with the drive for our pumps, so we don’t have to spend precious time doing that,” Ridley says. “We drag and drop the code, and hardware is automatically configured. This lets me keep a small, efficient team that just focuses on our value-add battery logic.”

Ridley estimates that choosing Siemens helped UET cut its time-to-market in half, saving months of development time and conserving precious cash. He also found that sole-sourcing with Siemens greatly simplified procurement and support.

“I don’t have to argue with supplier A and supplier B, pointing their fingers at each other,” he says. “With Siemens, it’s much more collaborative when we have a problem. We just work together to figure it out.”

Another benefit of working with Siemens has been added credibility and trust from potential customers, especially those in the utility industry. “We certainly mention we’re using Siemens standardized components that have hundreds of thousands of hours of mean-time-to-failure,” he says. “Siemens is a trusted name that helps build our credibility and move our sales cycles forward.”

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