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GE snaps up Opus One and its operating system for a fast-changing grid

Opus One is part of a new breed of software platforms that manage the rapid influx of renewables, batteries, EVs and more.
By Jeff St. John

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(Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

What is it that’s driving GE Digital, the software arm of General Electric, to acquire Toronto, Canada–based startup Opus One? The urgent need to prepare for the grid of the future.

The grid will increasingly be powered by wind and solar power that rises and falls with the weather, and it will serve customers who are adding their own distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar systems, batteries and electric vehicles at an accelerating clip. In some places — think Hawaii and California, or Australia — that future is already arriving.

But the grids of today were built to deliver power in one direction: from big power plants to customers. They weren’t built to track and manage the increasingly unpredictable and networked flows of power coming from these new technologies. Utilities need software platforms that can handle today’s complex web of power flows.

That’s where Opus One comes in. Utilities need a seamless, coordinated, integrated way to deal with these intermittent generation resources that we’ve never had to deal with in the past,” Jim Walsh, general manager of GE Digital’s grid software arm, told Canary Media. At the very top of that list is keeping the grid in balance.”

GE Digital competes with the likes of Siemens, Hitachi Energy, Schneider Electric and Emerson/​OSI in the utility software space. These companies’ key platforms include the advanced distribution management systems used by utility operations centers to manage low-voltage grid networks.

In recent years, these grid giants have added a new layer of software to their lexicon: the distributed energy resource management system, or DERMS. The term DERMS can apply to everything from software that aggregates lots of customers to bid energy flexibility into wholesale energy markets, to utility-facing applications designed to help keep low-voltage grids in balance.

Opus One’s digital model of the distribution grid

Over the past nine years, Opus One has become a key provider of the DERMS software in use by utilities in the states of California, Hawaii, Illinois and New York, as well as in Ontario, Canada and the U.K. After it’s deployed, the first task the company’s GridOS platform undertakes is digitally modeling the utility’s distribution grid networks, Opus One CEO Joshua Wong said in an interview.

These models can then be used to analyze the ever-more-complex power flows caused by intermittent renewable energy and unpredictable distributed energy. These effects can range from voltage fluctuations on local circuits with lots of solar panels or heavy new loads like EV chargers, to regionwide imbalances between electricity demand and the rise and fall of clean energy production.

An important application of Opus One’s software is helping utilities plan for the growth of clean energy and distributed energy like rooftop solar and EVs, Wong said. More advanced efforts include using algorithms to optimize the interaction of grid controls, generators, distributed energy assets and controllable loads.

Looking to the future, Opus One has been helping utilities assign values to what all those assets can do to balance the grid, he said. Those values are starting to inform distributed energy or microgrid flexibility” programs, giving utilities and grid operators a way to compensate distributed-energy-equipped customers who agree to put their assets to use to help balance the grid, which was long solely the responsibility of the utility.

We’ve done very well over the years opening new ground” on these complex challenges, Wong said. Working with GE Digital will give Opus One a chance to apply its technology into the rest of the grid software portfolio.”

The knotty problem of integrating renewables and distributed energy into the grid 

The question is whether utilities can put these kinds of capabilities into action quickly enough to match the exponential growth of renewables and distributed energy. Dozens of states have set 100 percent clean energy targets, and the Biden administration is pushing for policies that will shift the nation’s grid to net-zero carbon emissions by 2035, driving utilities to find ways to balance wind and solar at much higher levels than ever before.

Meanwhile, outside of the domain of utility-scale deployments, the U.S. is expected to add nearly 400 gigawatts of distributed energy resource capacity by 2025, ranging from solar panels and EVs to backup generators and batteries, according to forecasts from analysis firm Wood Mackenzie.

Some states and utilities are further along than others in experiencing this rate of distributed energy growth, as well as in developing programs and deploying technology to integrate it into the grid. California is in a much different place than Nebraska is, for example, as it relates to [distributed energy resource] penetration,” Walsh said. What is consistent, however, is that everybody knows that this is coming — and coming like a freight train.”

And it’s not just looming in states with aggressive renewables targets or distributed-energy policies. In 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made it mandatory for the transmission grid operators serving about two-thirds of the country to integrate distributed energy resources (DERs) into their energy markets. That’s going to put many U.S. utilities under pressure to find ways to manage the effects on their distribution grids.

To date, utilities have largely deployed DERMS in pilot projects separate from their broader grid-control systems. But as the volume of distributed energy grows, it won’t be sufficient to have a DERMS on one side and an [advanced distribution management system] on the other side,” Walsh said. They have to be modeled and controlled by the same system.”

Other major grid software vendors have reached similar conclusions and are working to bring more DERMS functionality to their advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) platforms. That work has involved both in-house integration and extensive work with outside vendors of specialist software designed to manage the DERMS challenge in different ways.

Smarter Grid Solutions, for example, was one of the first providers of commercial-scale technology to balance the fluctuations of wind and solar power with the power grid and customer demand, with ongoing operations in the U.S. and U.K. It’s also been a key partner with Opus One in projects in California, New York and the U.K.

Spirae is another long-time DERMS vendor, and new entrants such as Camus Energy are offering lower-cost approaches for utilities that can’t afford a full-blown DERMS or ADMS deployment.

What’s in a name? Sussing out the differences between DERMS and VPPs

At the same time, a host of technology providers using the DERMS moniker have focused on enabling customer-sited DERs to interact with wholesale energy markets or utility demand-response programs, rather than attempting to integrate with underlying utility grid operations software such as ADMS.

One practitioner of this virtual power plant” approach is Enbala, which was bought by Generac, the generator maker turned battery supplier and home energy management provider. Others include the multitechnology distributed-energy arms of European energy giants such as Enel X, Engie and Centrica.

Other players in the space are more focused on working with utilities. Alarm.coms EnergyHub is linking up behind-the-meter devices for utilities including Arizona Public Service and National Grid, while Virtual Peaker is playing key roles in distributed-energy controls for utilities including Green Mountain Power and Portland General Electric.

Utilities are working with many different types of software to get a grasp on distributed energy, explained David Groarke, managing director at Indigo Advisory Group, a New York–based grid technology consultancy. But it’s not standardized. Utilities are doing this in different ways, not just in the U.S. but globally.”

Where it gets murky is where you see these VPP components and these DERMS components integrated into these new systems,” he said. It’s really hard to put vendors [operating in the space] into different boxes.”

One good example of this is Silicon Valley startup AutoGrid, which is working with utilities and third-party energy services providers at scales ranging from household aggregations to large-scale industrial loads.

Opus One is squarely in the grid- and utility-centric” side of the DERMS equation, Wong noted. It positions itself as an aggregator of aggregators, not necessarily going out to every device out there, which a lot of people are focusing on.” Its power flow modeling and optimization technology are centered less on aggregating lots of distributed energy resources to earn money for their owners — a focus of energy services companies including Enel X, Engie and Centrica — and more on what do they mean for reliability [and] what do they mean for operations” at the utility level.

What’s keeping utilities from going big on DERMS

The market for utility-deployed DERMS has been slow to develop. That’s partly because not all utilities are facing the same pressures from rapidly growing renewables and DERs. But it’s also due to the fact that these kinds of projects are largely tied up in much broader and more costly grid modernization efforts, which can take years to move through state-by-state regulatory processes.

Over the past few years, several large-scale utility grid modernization initiatives have been turned back by regulators concerned about the costs they would impose on utility customers. The projects that have passed muster have often seen their total budgets reduced from what the utilities initially asked for, as was the case for Southern California Edison’s major grid modernization proposal last year.

Regulators have also been leery of approving costly smart meter deployments, which are seen as an essential source of data to inform utilities of what’s happening at the edges of their grids. Groarke noted that many utilities haven’t yet deployed some foundational technologies or cleaned up their existing grid data, which they would need to do before they could make full use of the kind of DERMS capabilities that companies like Opus One are providing.

The software side may be ahead of where utilities are on the back end,” he said. Integrating legacy software using proprietary protocols with newer versions that are based on new technology standards can take years of effort.

Nor do many utilities have clean and consistent data on their power grids, or the sensors and communications networks in place to monitor them in real time. Just having an up-to-date network model,” or an accurate digital map of a utility’s low-voltage grid, is a huge challenge,” he said.

Utilities are also under pressure to ensure that the money they spend on DERMS directly benefits their customers, rather than just making their own grid operations jobs easier, Groarke said. Making the case for the customer benefits first” will be important, whether that’s using DERMS to streamline the processes for customers to interconnect solar, batteries, EV chargers and other DERs, or creating programs that reward customers for the grid services those systems can provide, he said.

Walsh highlighted that Opus One’s acquisition by GE Digital won’t limit the startup’s activity strictly to work within GE. We’re going to give Opus One as much space as needed to be the entrepreneurial company that they are,” he said.

That means that Opus One can continue to work on projects like the community microgrid systems it’s enabling in Ontario and the transactive energy” pilot it has underway with Illinois- and Missouri-based utility Ameren.

Opus One’s direction and vision have always been to enable the energy transition,” Wong said. This collaboration on the ADMS and DERMS is just the beginning.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.