With claims of boosting the capacity of the grid by 25 per cent, Faraday Grid’s ambitions are certainly audacious. Are the days of the conventional transformer numbered?

The changing way we generate energy will create problems for our ageing infrastructure. As the system becomes increasingly decentralised and populated by renewable generators, today’s grid will need to adapt to facilitate a more dynamic, multidirectional flow of electricity, to avoid becoming fragile and unbalanced.

How to modify the way we use and generate energy going forward is a difficult question. The Faraday Grid’s founder and chief technology officer, Matthew Williams, believes his company has developed the best, and most sustainable, answer.

“I saw the way that engineering was going to try and resolve the problem was to come up with these new technologies, apply IoT, or blockchain, or whatever, to the energy sector, and use it as expensive add-ons that makes the system more complex, more fragile, more costly, just to address the symptoms. But I felt, as more of a systems designer, that fundamentally the system wasn’t really fit for purpose any more,” says Williams, an Australian systems architect and mechatronic engineer.

Williams and his colleagues at the Edinburgh-based company claim to have developed a transformer replacement that can balance power flow better than devices such as transformers, converters, rectifiers and inverters.

The Faraday Grid’s founders say its technology allows 80 per cent plus integration of non-synchronous renewable energy generation, 25 per cent greater grid carrying capacity and 7 per cent less network losses. To achieve this, it needs only to remove transformers according to the existing schedules of their replacement.

Established in 2016, Faraday was spun out of Australian systems integration firm Exigen, where Williams served as managing director, with current Faraday Grid chief executive Andrew Scobie as chairman. The company has already caught the attention of WeWork chief executive Adam Neumann, who invested £25 million in January. Mark Corben, who spent five years as the chief financial officer of Tideway, has recently been appointed as CFO at Faraday.

Some in the industry are sceptical of Faraday’s ability to create such significant improvement. The wariness, Williams believes, has been justified: “I always take [scepticism] as a positive thing, because electricity is so important you don’t want to be just letting anyone touch it.”

Precise details have been sketchy from The Faraday Grid, pending a patent application, and today’s meeting is also light on technical amplification. Williams is keen to stress the bigger picture on the company’s invention. “It was always about the system, our whole approach was not let’s invent a new widget and try to sell that, it was ‘what are we actually trying to solve’ and how can we enable it? This kind of incremental, iterative approach that people are taking makes the system better but ultimately it’s going to be limited on how good we can make it.

“If we’re going to have our reliable, affordable, decarbonised energy system, we need something that’s going to be resilient and flexible.”

What is the technology?

The company aims to usher in the next evolution of the energy grid on the back of its three-layered technology; the Faraday Exchanger, the Faraday Grid, and Emergent.

The Exchanger is the hardware, an autonomous device able to “control the voltage, the RMS voltage, completely remove all the harmonics, control power factor, and balance across the phases”.

Made up of an electromagnetic core, the Exchanger also has a power electronics control system. The Exchanger’s core differs from a traditional transformer’s in the metals used, as well as the geometry and arrangement of the core and windings.

The power electronics are what provide certain balancing features, with Williams saying that should they fail, the Exchanger will revert to a passive mode, still able to control voltage, power factor, harmonics, and phase balance until the electronics are replaced.

Williams says the Exchanger is more flexible and affordable than devices such as inverters or solid-state transformers because it controls power flow in the magnetic domain, which offers natural filtering and is easily scalable. These others work well at low power, but prices rise greatly as the power level they can deal with increases, which limits them in ways that the Exchangers are not.

He expects the upgrade to Exchangers to be like our vehicular transition. “No one buys horses and carts because cars do a better job.”

Next comes the Faraday Grid, described as the architecture for the future electricity system. It operates with autonomous decentralised control, likened to the internet, with “no master controller sitting over the top of the grid” – with Faraday “the grid is able to dynamically balance itself”.

The Faraday Grid is the cumulation of many Exchangers, each autonomously providing local benefits, which then stack into system-wide improvements. Through the Exchangers’ greater stabilisation, theoretically the grid should be able to handle greater percentages of renewable energy and operate with better efficiency.

And the business model?

Faraday, however, will not sell Exchangers outright. As a service provider, it will be contracted by energy stakeholders to install Faraday technology. Then they will work together to provide cost balancing and stability services at, hopefully, a cheaper price than is currently available.

“The business model is not just about selling product, because the value is really around what it delivers to the system overall. In one sense you could give the devices away for free and generate revenue from the energy as a service model.”

Williams says “in the UK, National Grid is spending over £1 billion a year balancing the system” and “that cost is only projected to go up, in 10 to 15 years that cost is projected to be over £10 billion a year”.

He sees Faraday Grid as the answer, believing that an Exchanger’s improved ability to balance and stabilise will diminish the need for balancing on the generation side. “Faraday provides a service in this balancing market to the overall grid, at a cost saving to the consumer, because it’s at a lower cost, and so the utility gets a benefit out of it, Faraday Grid gets a benefit.”

The third layer, Emergent, jointly owned with Amp, is a platform for “transactive energy” integrated directly into Faraday’s hardware and software. The platform will allow more players to buy and sell energy services, with Faraday earning some remuneration for facilitating transactions.

With Emergent, Faraday is aiming to improve accessibility to the energy market and balance supply and demand across the system by using the fluctuating price as an operational mechanism. It claims it “enables the network to cope with high and low demand periods by using pricing that alters” and believes that by being built into a core grid component, its marketplace will be best positioned to provide the most effective service.

In 2018, Glasgow’s Power Network Demonstration Centre performed a series of comparisons between a prototype Exchanger and a normal transformer, concluding that the Exchanger performed better in each of the 16 tests performed.

From this, Faraday has been eager to push the idea that in validating the effectiveness of a single Exchanger, the system-wide results have also been proven to be accurate. UK Power Networks is set to begin trials of a Faraday Grid soon, the results of which should provide a clearer picture of its abilities on a network level and if they’re good, to convince sceptics.

The need for improving capacity on the network is almost certain. “With the rise of EVs, the electrification of heat potentially, we’ve got some really big fundamental changes coming on the consumption side, and we’ve already started big changes on generation,” observes Williams.

“It really comes down to this old way we’ve managed the electricity grid for so long just isn’t fit for purpose any more, so for us it’s all about providing that platform so we can have more renewables, we can have electric vehicles, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Here’s an idea: safe-entry doorbell

A safe-entry digital doorbell intended to safeguard vulnerable customers, which was first proposed at last year’s Utility Week Live (UWL), is now at the advanced feasibility stage.

The product is intended to reassure water and energy customers that utility callers are genuine. It was one of the ideas to come out of the UWL Hackathon, which took place during the event at the NEC in Birmingham.

The brain-storming event was supported by Microsoft and United Utilities, who assessed the best ideas afterwards and asked app developer Apadmi to see how it could be developed.

After considering a number of technologies, Apadmi is basing the product on technology that would only allow it to be activated by authorised callers, from their mobiles. Each customer’s device would have a unique code that would be integrated into a field service officer’s job management system.“It’s essentially a cryptographic solution, not dissimilar to the way car keys unlock cars,” explains Adam Fleming, chief technology officer at Apadmi.

The next stage is to look at the commercial feasibility and see where the costs would be borne. “Something like this is highly needed and useful for vulnerable people to give them reassurance and peace of mind,” he adds.

The Hackathon process is being repeated at this year’s event and is focused on tackling two big industry challenges – electric vehicles and smart workforce.

This article first appeared in Flex, issue 3. Read the full issue of Flex here

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