With $11.5m in fresh funding Melbourne renewable energy technology company GreenSync is preparing to test international markets, CEO Phil Blythe tells Jeremy Chunn.

How much electricity could be saved if one giant brain controlled generation, consumption and storage for every single user? Probably a hell of a lot, but that’s just science fiction because everyone knows energy gets splashed around like bathwater. Even owners of rooftop solar systems have little idea of whether they are getting the most out of their investment in renewable energy.

Monitoring systems that trawl data on grid energy prices, PV generation and usage patterns to make decisions about when to import or export stored solar power are slowly taking hold in homes but larger ecosystems are much harder to cater to.

It’s a bigger problem – but not impossible to solve.

Melbourne-based company GreenSync went big on energy optimisation solutions from the very start, however, when it pitched its technology as suitable for use in entire electricity grids.

Through smart control and coordination, it reckons, more renewable resources and battery storage systems can be integrated into the grid.

“The energy industry is undergoing a somewhat painful transformation,” says GreenSync founder and CEO Phil Blythe, where the obvious benefit of renewables – free, non-polluting resources that never run out – are balanced by the prickly negative of intermittency of supply.

The supply of energy is being decentralised faster in Australia than anywhere else in the world, he says, “and that’s coming with a number of headaches”. A major problem is voltage instability, as intermittent renewable energy supply accounts for a larger share of electricity in the grid. “It begs the question: what is the architecture of our grid going forward?” he says.

GreenSync’s technology, which has been in use since 2012, takes a ringleader role in a decentralised network, orchestrating generation, consumption and battery storage resources and connecting to the grid “to understand exactly how and when we coordinate those distributed resources”.

The end result of allowing the smarts of machine learning into the grid is a more efficient network maintained at a lower cost, where the pre-emptive resolution of intermittency issues allows for hugely expensive infrastructure upgrades to be minimised or but on the backburner.

“Australia is right in the middle of this revolution towards decentralised energy,” says Blythe (pictured). “It’s a very buoyant market and a great opportunity for leading the world in this technology.”

Brains trust

The systems can think big or small, controlling generation in the wholesale market but also thinking ahead to forestall power quality issues at local network level. As more and more households convert to solar, something as simple as a cloud passing over a neighbourhood will have a big effect on the quality of electricity running along suburban powerlines and into homes.

When intermittent renewables make up more than 25% of power generation the grid will experience stability issues, he says. “Our goal is to ask: what does it take to get to a high level, like 80%?”

If battery storage solutions on the market are not designed to fit in a world where 80% of power is produced by intermittent renewables, “then maybe we’re not doing the right thing.”

GreenSync is involved with a trial with AusNet Services in Victoria where solar and storage is used exclusively to provide electricity to a suburban street. “Through that process we’ve learned a lot,” Blythe says, “and similarly with our other projects, whether it’s business parks or residential estates. [We’re] using the same techniques to push the needle right up to an uncomfortable area north of 70-80% renewables.”

After all, it would be negligent to avoid the question of how can we use these assets properly if we really are going to be in a world where we’re approaching high penetration?

The flipside of researching the effects of a majority-renewables energy supply is building a community with solar on every rooftop and thinking all will be well. “People are unwittingly doing this and not understanding what the consequences are,” he says. One outcome could be that the voltage climb would be too high, the solar panels wouldn’t generate any electricity at all and owners are left with “very expensive roof tiles”.

One solution in such areas would be to overbuild infrastructure to manage the voltage volatility, but a better way is to “use the smarts to remove the need” to spend that money on poles and wires.

As more smart technology is installed by utilities and industry, let alone householders, there will be less requirement to upgrade infrastructure.

Change in attitude

GreenSync counts energy retailers and suppliers among its clients, including Zen Energy, AusNet Services, Jemena, TransGrid and United Energy, and Blythe says any reticence on the part of the incumbents to forego profits by looking at ways to cut energy use has faded as the benefits of clean energy become impossible to ignore.

“Today when I go to energy networks conferences all they talk about is distributed energy,” he says. “The sentiment’s really moved. Suddenly everyone’s talking our language. In my mind, I don’t think the retailers or the networks have any time to waste. Their revenue is declining because solar is eating away at their business models. The only option is to embrace this. They can’t run in the opposite direction any longer.”

Australian clean energy technology is in a good position to stick out on the world stage, he says. There are more distributed energy assets here than anywhere else in the world, “and that’s something we should take advantage of – it’s a great export opportunity.”

Blythe admits the company’s four software products (Portfolio VPP, Portfolio CM, PeakResponse and MicroEM) pretty much do the same thing. “It’s a very large optimisation problem,” he says, “for a very large market.”

In January, GreenSync raised $11.5 million for global expansion in a Series B capital raising, including $5 million from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation via the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, $5 million from the Southern Cross Renewable Energy Fund (a co-investment between ARENA and Softbank China Venture Capital) and $1.5 million from a private fund.

The money will be used to scale the technology for a global presence, Blythe says, “to have it turnkey ready to be used globally.”

Top end

The technology is already helping utilities transform into modern energy services businesses, as well as assisting new market entrants.

“Our transformation from a company offering peak demand management services to a company offering broad spectrum control and optimisation of grids with energy resources and battery storage is reflective of the rapid changes underway in Australia and around the world,” says Blythe, who has targeted an 80% renewable energy mix in grids managed with GreenSync software.

“We’re looking to be a global leader in integrating the new energy economy of renewable resources, battery storage and internet enabled devices into electricity markets around the world.”

Clean Energy Finance Corporation investment development director Blair Pritchard said GreenSync’s technology “acts like the brain and spinal cord of the smart grid, giving industrial and commercial sites, households and businesses access to the appropriate energy source at the right time, improving reliability and penetration of renewable sources”.

Technology such as GreenSync’s will help lower capital costs in the decentralised energy model of the future, Pritchard says.

“In the future the smart grid will be able to integrate an even greater use of renewable energy, as well as electric vehicles and battery storage options, giving consumers even more control of their energy consumption,” he says. GreenSync is a member of the Clean Energy Council and Energy Efficiency Council.