BP acquires Blueprint Power to tap the grid-balancing capability of big buildings

The startup has 13MW of flexible energy in its NYC portfolio and is looking to expand.

New York City will need to tap building energy flexibility to help balance an increasingly clean-powered grid. (BP)
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Robyn Beavers, CEO and co-founder of Blueprint Power, has worked on many different sides of the interface between buildings and the power grid. She led the team that carried out Google’s first big rooftop solar installation in 2006. She was part of the original founding team of Station A, a unit of NRG Energy that later spun out as an independent provider of data to optimize solar, battery and other distributed energy investments for buildings across the country. Then she led technology investment for Lennar, one of the country’s biggest homebuilders. 

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Since its 2017 founding, Blueprint Power has melded this diverse experience into a business model that’s enabled some of New York City’s biggest commercial building owners to transform their portfolios into flexible power networks.” 

That’s how Beavers describes the 13 megawatts of combined-heat-and-power systems, solar panels and flexible loads like HVAC and lighting that the company has orchestrated for its customers. Electric vehicle chargers and batteries will soon be added to a mix that’s expected to grow to 36 MW of flexible capacity by the end of next year, she said in an interview this week. 

Blueprint doesn’t install or own these energy assets itself. But its software tells customers which combination of them can drive the biggest utility bill savings and earn the most revenue from utility demand response programs and energy market opportunities. It also actively manages them to make sure they’re hitting those targets against a shifting landscape of moneymaking opportunities — and takes a cut of the proceeds for itself. 

The concept of making distributed-energy-equipped buildings an active part of the grid goes by many names, such as virtual power plants” or grid-interactive buildings.” Whatever it’s called, parties from the U.S. Department of Energy to global energy companies and infrastructure investors consider it a vital — and lucrative — tool to enable a lower-carbon energy system. 

BP, the U.K.-based multinational oil company, appears to see the value as well. This week it acquired Blueprint Power, adding it to its bp Launchpad portfolio of companies. Now it plans to expand Blueprint’s business model to several major urban markets across the U.S. and explore opportunities with its energy project development and energy trading business units. 

Decarbonizing dense urban areas is a key challenge,” Sam Skerry, senior vice president of bp Launchpad, said in a prepared statement. Blueprint’s technology can help deliver this critical transformation.” 

Financial terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed, although BP spokesperson Rita Brown said the price for Blueprint was in the tens of millions” of dollars range. Blueprint hasn’t disclosed the full amount of money it has raised beyond a $3.5 million Series A round in 2018 from investors including Congruent Ventures, MetaProp Ventures, Lennar, Fifth Wall Ventures, 174 Power Global and Urban-X, but Beavers said the company has raised between $5 million and $10 million since its founding. 

A holistic approach” to building energy flexibility

Solar panels, batteries, EV chargers and technology to control energy loads are being monitored and controlled in different configurations in buildings across the country. Many of them come with financing to cover their upfront installation costs and managed services” offerings to insulate building owners from the complexity and risks involved in ensuring that they earn back that investment over the long haul. 

The falling cost of these distributed energy technologies had encouraged a growing number of companies with global reach to take up these business models, from equipment manufacturers such as Schneider Electric, Honeywell, Siemens and Hitachi to the services arms of utilities and energy companies including Enel, Engie, Shell and now BP

What distinguishes Blueprint’s approach from many competitors is that it takes a holistic approach, rather than a siloed approach,” Beavers said. Building owners aren’t as interested in specific technologies as they are in how they can help them meet their internal financial and operational needs, from cutting energy bills to boosting their property values and meeting their corporate sustainability goals. 

You can have multiple [distributed energy resources] behind the meter in one building, and you can optimize how those behave as a system so that the building itself can become a single source of flexibility,” she said.

Blueprint’s cloud-based software connects building management systems, on-site generators, distributed energy assets, meters and sensors to track real-time performance. That overarching view helps it keep a building’s overall energy profile within certain limits and can mitigate the demand charges that make up a big chunk of commercial building utility bills. 

But matching building energy profiles to utility rates is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the value flexibility can provide, Beavers said. There’s a world of opportunity in the demand response programs offered by utilities such as Con Edison in New York City and the wholesale energy markets run by grid operators like NYISO, which manages the state’s transmission network.

Blueprint’s Energy Marketplace platform is the interface to these moneymaking opportunities, enabling a building to flex” its demand up and down in response to utility requests to ease pressure on the grid or take advantage of cheaper energy on wholesale markets. 

This revenue boosts the business case for installing more distributed energy resources that can help cut a building’s carbon footprint, Beavers noted. It also represents the value of flexibility on a grid that’s getting an increasing amount of its supply from variable wind and solar power, and an increasing amount of demand from electric vehicles and heating systems. 

How flexible buildings can help decarbonize the grid 

These imperatives are at play in New York City, which is pushing to electrify transport and heating on its way to meeting the statewide goal of a zero-carbon grid by 2040. That increased load could nearly double the city’s peak grid demand by 2050 without major investments in energy efficiency and load-shifting, according to an April study by consultancy ICF

Grid constraints could stymie New York City’s decarbonization goals well before then, however, Beavers said. EV charging in particular could face severe limits from local grid circuits that can’t handle their power demands, and building new grid capacity in the country’s densest large city could take years and cost millions of dollars. 

This summer, Blueprint won a $3 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to test how its technology could help solve that problem for up to 150 EV chargers to be installed at an apartment complex in Queens. If Blueprint can show that its platform can balance those EV charging demands with overall building loads to avoid exceeding local grid constraints, that helps avoid killing the prospect for EV chargers, and it’s a more efficient way to electrify.” 

Jared Rodriguez, the former energy conservation director for the LeFrak Organization, which owns the apartments hosting this test, highlighted the value of balancing building and EV charging loads that would otherwise be competing for capacity on a constrained grid. 

Building out the grid infrastructure to serve peak loads that might only arise during a handful of hours per year is not an efficient way to address this problem,” he said. We can do better, and Blueprint is helping in this respect.”

Tapping flexibility from multiple assets allows for aggregation and optimization, which can smooth out peaks and improve grid hosting capacity,” said Elta Kolo, a vice president with Huck Capital, a private equity investment firm that’s backing similar distributed energy offerings. That’s particularly valuable in New York City, where Blueprint has tapped the highest-value demand-response flexibility in the country.” 

Reducing grid peak demand doesn’t just save money. It can also help cut carbon, according to Brett Bridgeland, a manager with the buildings practice of nonprofit research group RMI

We’re just starting to comprehend the emissions-reduction benefits of demand flexibility,” he said. In the near term, it can reduce dirtier power generation on the margin, which has both carbon and localized air quality benefits,” as indicated by a recent study from NYSERDA and RMI. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Utilities haven’t yet adapted the way they plan and pay for grid infrastructure to incorporate these growing electrification demands. Nor have the country’s grid operators adopted the structures that could allow distributed energy resources to play a broader role in their wholesale energy markets, although they’re under order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make those changes in the coming years. 

Energy market reform is still in progress,” Beavers said. Blueprint sees that as an opportunity. Commercial and industrial buildings are barely scratching the surface in terms of diving into this.” 

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.