May 8, 2020
The startup life?
Shibani Ghosh has lived it.
She’s had long commutes on the NYC subway to a Manhattan office. She’s worked the early mornings and late nights. She’s been a part of a team working for a good cause: greening residential and commercial buildings in New York. Ghosh lived it all as part of the energy technology startup, BlocPower.
“It was a very exciting time,” she remembers. “I was working in an environment where everyone was striving toward one common goal.”
Now in Colorado, as a researcher in the Power Systems Engineering Center at NREL, Ghosh is one of the principal investigators with the Shell GameChangerTM Powered by NREL (GCxN) program. Her experience provides important expertise that she now uses to help startups test their “Grid of the Future” technologies.
Over the next 18 months, Ghosh will be working with the startup Span. Span is redesigning a device that homeowners know well – the electrical panel – hoping to make it smarter and more user-friendly. (As Nest did for the thermostat.)
The Span panel integrates key components of the electrical system in order to power a home with solar and batteries, and to support EV charging as well as electrified appliances. It operates as the central nervous system connecting the devices in a smart home.
Shibani is not alone. Span’s CEO Arch Rao is the former head of product for Tesla Energy, and guided the development of the Powerwall.
Seeing the Energy Transition at Different Scales
“Working with Span is a very good technical fit with what I am currently doing at NREL,” Ghosh says.
“In some of my other projects, we look at the system-level impacts of distributed customer assets such as solar PV, and look at these technologies from a birds’-eye view,” she says. “Working with Span, it will help in getting a closer look – how assets are being connected on customers’ premises.”
Ghosh’s expertise is in grid automation, controls for emerging smart-grid technologies, and power-system operation and planning. Her modeling work mostly focuses on how both distributed renewables and EVs can be seamlessly integrated into grid architecture.
GCxN allows Ghosh to work directly with a startup creating a consumer product – approaching the same problem from the bottom up.
“Technologies like the Span panel make it more customer-friendly for edge devices like solar panels to be widely adopted in the grid,” she says.
Ghosh is stepping in to do testing at a critical time: Span launched its product in its first market just last fall. As the product proliferates, and the company makes changes and re-calculates its strategy, Ghosh can use the capabilities of NREL to hone the product by analyzing its system-wide impacts.
Intrigued when she first heard about the GCxN challenge, Ghosh volunteered to review applications from companies vying to get into the cohort.
Like other engineers at NREL, Ghosh balances multiple projects. And by joining the GCxN cohort, Ghosh gets the best of both worlds.
“I get to work at a national lab, which is amazing in itself, while still helping a startup develop their products and their business,” she says.
Next Steps for a Revolutionary Product
For many years, NREL has facilitated and catalogued renewable uptake on the grid, and the promise of Span is linked to that.
Customers might buy it initially in order to simplify their smart-home system, but the panels allow for easier renewable-energy integration, from rooftop solar panels or home solar systems.
“We’re designing it so that it makes it incredibly easy and inexpensive to integrate renewable energy,” Rao says.
As the project gears up, Ghosh and Rao are finalizing agreements for a utility partner to work with. They will be using the grid simulation capabilities at NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility to see how utilities could benefit with products like Span’s.
More information on NREL’s Power Systems Engineering research is available here.
Learn more about Span’s work in GCxN here.