Bridging the Divide

On NC State University’s ultramodern Centennial Campus, a startup company called GridBridge is helping electric utility companies adopt smart technologies that promise to revolutionize the energy business.

It’s an exciting, if challenging, mission.

“The utilities have to do a great deal of heavy lifting on a daily basis to be able to provide power in the way that they do,” says GridBridge president Chad Eckhardt. “And now, to try to modernize the grid is a monumental task.”

Eckhardt is a passionate entrepreneur who’s worked in the energy industry for more than a decade. He says the coming changes are long overdue and will help optimize the flow of electricity based on consumer demand.

“We’re operating a grid that was primarily designed in the early 1900s and hasn’t changed much, while consumers have changed dramatically,” he says. “We’re adopting all these new devices, such as electric vehicles, rooftop solar, even compact florescent light bulbs. These all cause problems on the grid.”

Utility companies see that they need to modernize, he adds, but they find the technical challenges daunting. That’s an opportunity for researchers and companies collaborating through the FREEDM Systems Center, such as GridBridge.

“We’re working with utilities to provide the devices, and the advanced intelligence and control they need, to be able to modernize the grid,” Eckhardt explains.

One of the new technologies GridBridge is promoting is a way to integrate renewables and energy storage devices, including electric vehicles, into the grid.

“You can introduce these devices,” he says. “But how do you optimize the flow of electricity once they’re connected? It’s not that easy because there are so many variables. You need some brains in the system to control these devices and the resulting power flow.”

In pilot tests conducted in cooperation with Duke Energy – another FREEDM member – GridBridge devices were able to stabilize fluctuating circuit voltages to a more efficient lower voltage and dynamically adjust voltage set points on the same circuits. With the adoption of renewable energy production accelerating, the industry is eager to find practical solutions like the devices that GridBridge is innovating.

“We’re on the front of a very large wave,” Eckhardt says. “Utilities want to help solve all these problems, but they need the equipment to do it. They need an advanced set of technologies.”