PUD’s experimental energy storage system is missing crucial software

EVERETT — An experimental project that spurred a whistleblower complaint at the Snohomish PUD is running and churning out data for more research and development work.

The PUD hopes the project can help the utility drive down the cost of its power grid and make greater use of wind power.

However, the energy storage system and its huge battery is still missing a critical piece of software.

That software, which allows for remote control and greater flexibility in using the battery, is ready to be installed once the Snohomish County Public Utility District is finished upgrading the system it uses to control its grid, said Dave Kaplan, CEO of 1Energy Systems, which developed the software for the PUD.

That could happen as soon as next month, he said.

The delay was because of a disagreement between the PUD and Seattle-based 1Energy Systems over whether the software was to be developed for the first energy storage system project, called MESA 1, or for a related project to develop a control system for managing multiple energy storage systems connected to the PUD’s grid, he said.

The PUD has been operating the system at a substation near Paine Field since July. Without the scheduling software, the system and its giant battery have been charging and discharging at fixed times. Changes to the schedule have to be uploaded into the system on site.

To work effectively and economically, energy storage systems need powerful control and scheduling software capable of quickly responding to changing conditions, such as a windstorm driving up wind-generated electricity, said Jason Zyskowski, the PUD’s engineer overseeing the MESA 1 project.

This $7.4 million project, though, is not about making or saving money. It’s about learning, he said. “This project is not based on a business case. It’s an R-and-D case.”

Energy storage systems give power grids greater flexibility and make it easier and cheaper to deliver cleaner electricity to homes and businesses, advocates say.

However, the technology is still young, expensive and can vary greatly because of proprietary designs.

Those are among the reasons that energy storage systems are rarely used by utilities, he said.

“If each system you install is different and proprietary, when you try to troubleshoot it in the middle of the night, it is really complicated,” he said.

In 2011, the PUD set out on an ambitious research and development effort to make utility-size energy storage systems cheaper and more widespread. The PUD expects to spend about $23.5 million on four projects that are part of that effort. The state’s Department of Commerce is covering $7.3 million of that, with taxpayer money from its Clean Energy Fund.

The PUD tapped Seattle-based 1Energy to lead the projects. A former Microsoft executive and cleantech entrepreneur, Kaplan had been a PUD employee in 2010 and 2011.

The district awarded several no-bid contracts to 1Energy starting in 2011.

The noncompetitive contracts and close relationship between Kaplan and the PUD’s former CEO Steve Klein prompted a whistleblower complaint this past spring. The PUD hired a Seattle-based attorney to investigate the allegations. The attorney found that the PUD and Kaplan had broken PUD policy by failing to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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