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Emporia’s energy management system prepares for the bidirectional EV charging future

Total control of power usage: from solar to EV and back to the house.

Bidirectional charging promises to completely transform the vehicle ownership experience. Once an EV can double as a stationary storage device, it will take its place as part of an energy ecosystem that includes rooftop solar and energy management—and could even become a source of revenue for owners and a valuable grid-balancing resource for utilities.

Emporia Energy, which makes an energy management system for homes and small businesses, has launched a new smart Level 2 charger, and plans to offer bidirectional capability soon. Charged Publisher Christian Ruoff and Senior Editor Charles Morris spoke with Emporia founder and CEO Shawn McLaughlin about the company’s history to this point, and its future plans to enable a new era of energy efficiency.

Christian: Could you start by telling us why you founded the company?

Shawn: I’m a commodities market trader by background. I spent 25 years buying and selling commodities, primarily focusing on North American energy—natural gas, crude oil, and then some electricity. Then I founded and sold a couple of different companies. The last one I was running is called Concord Energy. 

I launched Emporia in the spring of 2018 with co-founders Ted Graham and Franz Ketwig—we have worked together since 2006 in the commodities trading space, and they now share the Chief Technical Officer role at Emporia. [The company was based on] the idea that the energy transition is going to accelerate, and that we could apply our marketing and trading background and new technology to see if we can play a small role in helping to advance that.

The first product we launched was an energy monitoring system. When we launched the company, we spent a lot of time studying the energy transition to see where we thought we could add value, and leverage our backgrounds of commodity marketing and trading. And we came up to two different [insights] at the end of that study. 

What if we could use new technology to deliver a real-time energy management system for small commercial and residential at a really attractive price point? That was the first opportunity we saw.

The first was that there’s been some great building automation systems, energy management systems developed for large commercial and industrial customers—Siemens, Johnson Controls, Schneider. However, they cost thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars to purchase and install. We didn’t feel like there was a good system for small commercial and residential, one that made sense for every homeowner in America when you looked at the return on investment. What if we could use new technology to deliver a real-time energy management system for small commercial and residential at a really attractive price point? That was the first opportunity we saw.

The second thing we really became firm believers in was that bidirectional EV charging is a huge gain in technology that we think will accelerate the transition. This idea that you can store 75-plus kilowatt-hours of energy in your car and it’s sitting in your garage 95% of the time, and be able to tap into that as storage for distributing renewable generation, we think is a complete game-changer for accelerating the EV transition and solving some of the issues that the grid is having today.

So, we developed an energy monitoring device, which we launched in the spring of 2019. You install it inside your electrical panel, and it collects energy usage data for the whole building and for each individual circuit inside the panel, a thousand times a second. We send data up to the cloud through the home area network once a second, and present it back to the consumer on a mobile app or a web app, so you can look at exactly how much energy your home is consuming—how much you are using for your HVAC, your dishwasher, your dryer, on a real-time basis, a daily, weekly, monthly and even annual basis.

Charles: That sounds like a great system, but how useful is it if your utility doesn’t offer a time-of-use tariff? For example, I have a solar system at my house, but we don’t have a TOU program here in Florida.

Shawn: We actually have three different automated energy management tools that come with that device. One of them is time-of-use, which more and more utilities across the country are adopting, but we also have two others. One is a peak demand management tool. For over 95 percent of commercial buildings, half their bill is made up, not of how much energy they use, but what their peak 15-minute usage was during any time period during the month [Editor’s note: these demand charges are a major headache for owners of DC fast charging stations]. With our peak management tool, you’ll be able to set your goal, and as you exceed that goal, we’ll start turning off energy consumption in your home or building to maintain that.

The third one, which you might be more interested in, is our excess generation manager. As you’re producing more solar than your home needs, instead of sending that solar back to the grid, we can do things like charge your EV right through our charger or through a car API, so that you’re taking advantage of your excess solar and charging that car. We can turn on smart plugs. We can actually adjust your thermostat. So you can say [for example], when I have excess solar, adjust my thermostat a couple degrees, so when a cloud comes or the sun goes down, I don’t have to pull from the grid right away. I can wait until my temperature balances back up.

Trying to take advantage of that excess generation instead of sending it back to the grid is a big thing today. 

Trying to take advantage of that excess generation instead of sending it back to the grid is a big thing today. I know some of the folks that installed solar over the years have grandfathered into net metering, where they may be getting a one-to-one [credit] for the energy they send to the grid. Our system allows the customer to balance it a little bit themselves and not have to rely so hard on the grid. 

Charles: There’s a bill pending in California that would greatly reduce net metering rates. A similar bill in Florida was just killed, for now, but if current trends continue, a lot of solar users are going to lose net metering. Your system would allow them to schedule their EV charging or other big power draws for times when excess solar generation is available. And you don’t need a bidirectional charger or a battery to take advantage of that?

Shawn:Correct. We have smart plugs that will turn on all smart appliances. We’ve done third-party thermostat integration, so if you buy a Honeywell or an Emerson Sensi or Ecobee thermostat, you can adjust your HVAC. We’re just completing integration with the Tesla API, so we’ll be able to adjust charging, even if you have a Tesla charger, not an Emporia charger. And we’re going to continue to integrate Siemens and Eaton for smart panels, GE and Bosch for smart appliances, all kinds of good stuff, to give more control over your energy consumption through your smart home devices.

You get access to all three tools—time-of-use, peak demand management and excess generation— through our software, and that comes free of charge. No subscription, just the purchase of the hardware, and you can use one or all three of them. 

Christian: Coincidently, I bought one of your energy monitoring systems a few months ago. I don’t have solar panels, I just wanted to know where I was using the most power in the house. I didn’t find any anyone else who made a system like yours, so it was an easy choice. I just wanted to have it log all my usage information because I was curious. And you can’t improve what you don’t measure.

Shawn:Some of the biggest savings comes from just energy efficiency and awareness, which is why you bought the tool, right? For example, finding what they call vampire load. [Sometimes] when you look at a circuit level, you’re like, “What the heck? I haven’t been in that room in two weeks. What could be running?” And you realize that there’s some motor or pump or something on. We think that the average consumer will save about 10 to 15% just off that awareness. Also, we can send out push notifications, so you can alert yourself if you leave your oven on or if you leave your basement lights on. Or, if it’s raining and you’re not getting alerts that your sump pump is running, you could protect yourself against a flood. So, it’s a lot more than just managing that utility rate schedule.

Christian: Now you have a Level 2 EV charger that integrates with your system.

Shawn: Yeah, we’re super-excited about it. It’s our newest addition. It is a Level 2, 48-amp smart charger with a 25-foot cable. If you look at the other best-selling products on Amazon, it’s right among the top-of-the-line specs, but we’re retailing it for $399. And if you look at other products with similar specs, they’re $700 or just under. 

Along with that price, you get the most robust feature set. You can combine it with our energy monitoring device. We can do things they can’t. We can pause your EV charger when your dryer or your oven kicks on. We can do solar-only charging, because we know when you have excess production. We think we have a more robust feature set at a really competitive price that’s driving a great consumer value.

Christian:You’re moving into bidirectional charging. What have you done so far, and what’s your vision for that?

Shawn: When we launched the company back in 2018, this was a huge part of the business model. It was truly a decision made back then—can we start developing our bidirectional charger now, or is it too early? In 2018, there wasn’t a UL spec [for bidirectional charging] out yet—there was uncertainty whether EV adoption was going to explode, and it was less certain whether the bidirectional capabilities in vehicles were going to be enabled. So, we thought, let’s focus on this home energy management system, then when the time is right, we can plug the bidirectional charger in too. And we really feel like right now is that time. In the last 12 months, Volkswagen has announced that they’re going to support bidirectional charging for every vehicle built in 2022 and beyond. The Ford Lightning came out with bidirectional capability, and [Rivian, Hyundai and Kia plan to go bidirectional].

All of [the automakers] are not only spending billions of dollars upgrading their fleets to EVs, but the majority of them are also announcing that they’re going to support bidirectional charging. We feel like, if we can build a system that offers an amazing consumer value proposition, then we’ll be able to fit into that puzzle as it all comes together. 

I’ve been reaching out to players in the market, and really just fell in love with what Dr. Robert Erickson at Colorado University Boulder has done. He holds several patents and intellectual property that he developed for 38 years as a professor at CU. He literally wrote the book as a power systems control engineer—it’s the number-one selling power systems control engineering textbook ever, so he understands this better than anybody. He founded a for-profit company a couple of years ago that has an exclusive license from CU Boulder for all the patents and IP that he developed. And now we, with our partnership with him, can use those patents and IP to build our bidirectional charger. We think it’s going to allow us to deliver one of the smallest, lightest, least expensive chargers on the market.

Christian: It seems like your devices now are mostly geared towards residential. Will the bidirectional charger also be for commercial markets?

Shawn: As we talked about earlier, there seems to be a big void in small commercial and residential, and that’s where we’re really focused. About 85% of the buildings in North America are 50,000 square feet or smaller, and that’s the way we’re developing our products, to serve that market. It’s a ton of buildings, right? If we can offer a great value prop and a simple user experience, with the installation of our energy monitor, then we think that we can help serve a large chunk of that. 

There seems to be a big void in small commercial and residential, and that’s where we’re really focused. About 85% of the buildings in North America are 50,000 square feet or smaller, and that’s the way we’re developing our products, to serve that market.

It’s going to be 11.5 kilowatts and 48 amps of DC to the car. We’ll bring in AC from the home or from the power source. We have an onboard inverter that will convert it to DC power, send DC to the car. We’ll do the CCS charger, and then we will pull back DC from the car, convert it to AC and put it back into the house.

Christian: So it’ll be 11.5 kilowatts both ways.

Shawn: Yep. It differs a little within a commercial building. In a single split-phase [system] we are looking at 48 amps x 240 volts = 11.5 kW. For three-phase systems we are looking at 48 amps x 208 volts (line-to-line voltage in a three-phase system). Our first bidirectional charger will be single split-phase only. We will launch a separate three-phase system in 2024.

Christian: You’re going to be using the CCS standard, so the idea is that it’ll work with any of the future bidirectional-enabled EVs?

Shawn: Correct. Again, the car manufacturers have been vague around this. There’s been a lot of work on the communication protocol ISO 11158-20. It’s in the final stages of publication and it’s been drafted, it’s been published for review and we think by this spring it’ll be slowly published. So yes, we’re building around CCS and the control language of communication we’re using is ISO 11158-20. We think that will be the open standard for communication—it’s how you talk to the car and do the handshake, and their bidirectional capabilities will be coming out here in the next couple of months.

Christian:So then, the primary use case would be for vehicle-to-building. We’re still a ways away from vehicle-to-grid, correct?

Shawn:Yeah. “A ways away” is a great way to say it, because it’s uncertain. We still have a bifurcated market here, where there’s some federal regulation and a lot of state [utility board] regulation. We will see how that plays out, but initially, the idea is to be able to help consumers manage their energy behind the meter, around the utility rate schedule. [The difference between rates] in some spots can be quite large. In California, they have a time-of-use rate if you have an electric vehicle—it’s 5 cents during off-peak, 55 cents during peak. It’s literally 10 times [as much].

Even in other markets, it’s typically two or three times, maybe four times more during peak than off-peak, so if you can take 100% of that peak load and run it from the car, and then refill it during off-peak, you’re going to have absolutely huge savings on that utility bill—30-40% or more. And if you don’t have time-of-use, but you have solar, you’ll be able to store all your excess solar. You’ll never have to receive [a lower rate for energy returned to the utility]. 

At a $1,500 price point, we’re trying to get to the point where this thing will pay out well within two years. For some people, it can be quicker than that, just managing behind the meter. And then the next step is selling demand response services to the grid. Right now, they want to pay so they can control your thermostat. Well, the problem with that is no one wants to be hot on the hottest days of the year or cold on the coldest days. But with this, they can pay you to control your bidirectional charger. They can shift your load on and off the grid, and the homeowner won’t be inconvenienced at all. You won’t even notice the house shifted to the car and back, but the grid operator utility will be willing to pay for that flexibility.

It starts just behind that meter. Quickly, you’ll be able to aggregate into a utility demand response program where they’ll pay you additionally. They say demand response is worth approximately $50 to $100 per kilowatt per year. If you figure you’re going to be able to move three, four or five kilowatts, depending on the size of your house, that’ll be an additional $100 to $500 a year that you can get from your utility on top of that money you’ll save on the meter. 

Then the third phase will be accessing the wholesale market and selling all the grid services. And when you get to that level, there’s been a lot of pilots done where they’re talking about savings from $500 to $2,500 or more for a 50-100 kWh [EV] battery. With a bidirectional charger, you can be saving up to $1,000 when you get to that. So, it’ll come in phases, though it is a ways away.

Christian: I think in the short term, just emergency backup power will be a huge seller here in Florida. Generators are extremely expensive to have installed, and for people like us who live in hurricane zones, losing power is a regular occurrence.

Shawn: Absolutely, and if you’re not producing solar, you can drive [to another area] where power is working and fill up [your EV battery] and come back home and run your house. It offers a lot more flexibility, especially for those that have onsite generation and EVs.

Christian:What are the next steps and biggest challenges for launching this product?

Shawn: The biggest challenge that we have is the same as just about every tech company in the country, and that is finding top talented engineers. We’re constantly hiring. We do scrutinize quite a bit and are trying to bring in some of the brightest and best. That’s going to be the biggest challenge, and I know that sounds strange when we’re bringing a new technology to the market, but we have so much confidence in Dr. Erickson. He’s received nearly seven million dollars in grants from the DOE to develop this technology over the years, and he’s so far along with working prototypes already that it’s just a matter of customizing the control boards to our needs. So, we feel like the engineering and even the science part of this is very low-risk. It’s really just bringing in those talented folks so we can execute around this known technology that we have.

Charles: What EV models out there right now that support bidirectional charging?

Shawn:The Nissan LEAF and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. The reason why there are only two is that they’re the only ones to use CHAdeMO. The ChAdeMO bidirectional charging communication protocol has been out for several years, and there are bidirectional chargers you can use for those. The Quasar one actually just came to market—it’s 4,000 bucks.

The reason why you haven’t seen them developed yet for CCS is because of that ISO communication protocol. So, the gateway issue for all this to start rolling is this communication protocol, ISO 11158-20, to be finalized and released. It was supposed to happen two years ago, and they keep postponing it, but now it is in final review. Once that communication is released, that will unlock the chargers for J1772 and CCS. 

Charles: In terms of when you’re going to release your product, it sounds like you’re also waiting on the automakers. 

Shawn:The communication protocol is in final draft form and review, and has been released to certain parties, and we’ve got access to it. So, we’re designing and developing right now around that communication protocol. We don’t have to wait for it. The final spec may have a couple of changes, but that would just be us tweaking our software. It’s a bottleneck for the whole industry to implement it, make it commercial, but we’re all still developing around it, so it’s not hindering the development of it.

We’re going to launch with or without the car manufacturers being ready to support it. Now, we may sell in very small numbers if very few cars [are bidirectional-capable], but that’s not going to set our timeline. We’re going to offer something that consumers are going to demand, and that’ll help drive adoption. 

Honestly, the biggest gated item is UL certification, so we’re saying second half of 2023 [for launch], and the majority of that time is for UL certification. We’ll start submitting stuff to them this year. I think we’ll have formally kicked up manufacturing for UL prototype units, but we don’t expect to be able to actually get the certificate until the second half of next year.  

This article appeared in Issue 59: Jan-Mar 2022 – Subscribe now.

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