Discover more from Startup Pirate by Alex Alexakis
Bringing Power Grids to the 21st Century
Power grids and the green energy transition, maritime shipping & AI, navigating the LLM space, 5 funding rounds, jobs, events, and more
Hey reader, welcome to Startup Pirate #83. This issue features a plan to modernise power grids and pave the way for a green energy transition and much much more. Don’t forget to subscribe below for tech and startup nuggets with a Greek twist every two weeks:
Bringing Power Grids to the 21st Century
There is no green future without an upgraded power grid. In fact, the grid, this intricate system of lines, cables and transformers that provide electricity all the way from its generation to the customers, may be the weakest link in the chain connecting us to a clean energy future. We’re going to explore why and how we can bring power grids to the 21st century with the co-founder & CEO of SMPnet, Anastasios Oulis Rousis.
Let’s jump right in.
Anastasi, we’re witnessing a fast pace in the rolling out of renewables. What are the main factors driving this change?
AR: First and foremost, there are environmental concerns, right? Countries globally witness the effects of climate change, and governmental policies are put in place: the EU’s Net Zero Industry Act, the UK’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, the US’s Inflation Reduction Act, etc. Most parts of the world are reducing their reliance on fossil fuels through renewables. Renewables (solar, wind, hydropower, biofuels, and others) have been around for decades, but only recently we saw a significant acceleration in their deployment. Why? Improving technologies and economies of scale drove down their price significantly. The cost of electricity from solar declined by 89% and wind by 70% from 2009 to 2019, and as a consequence, power from new renewables is now cheaper than power from new fossil fuels in most places. With the parallel electrification of the economy, for the first time, we see economic growth and decarbonisation going hand in hand. At the same time, renewables pave the way for economic security and sovereignty. Countries can reduce their energy imports, lessening their reliance on foreign countries for oil and gas. We understood how critical that was during the Russo-Ukrainian War.
A key challenge with renewables has always been the intermittency of energy generation. They don’t generate energy at a steady pace; they fluctuate. To balance supply and demand at all times, we need storage units that supply power into the system when solar and wind are not generating. So, the fact that the price of batteries has reduced significantly also plays a role in the energy transition, although it needs to drop further to accelerate their adoption.
What does this transition mean for how we deliver and distribute energy?
AR: Our energy system, the electricity grid as we call it, which is an intricate system designed to provide electricity all the way from its generation to the customers, was developed more than a century ago. It was created on the premise that generation was centralised (large coal-fired power plants), transmitted, and distributed down to consumers.
The advent of renewables and distributed energy storage fundamentally disrupted the idea of a steady, unidirectional flow of energy because now, we can place generating sources everywhere in the system: at your rooftop (solar panels), garage (an electric vehicle that plugs in and supplies energy into your home), a solar farm nearby your university campus or an offshore wind farm in the middle of the sea. The network suddenly needs to support intermittent, multidirectional energy flows, which brings about several challenges (e.g. load flow reversal, voltage rise and dip problems, maintenance scheduling considering weather conditions, etc.) and requires proper grid upgrade.
This modernisation is twofold: add cables, lines, and transformers to expand the grid, connect more renewable resources, and update the ageing infrastructure. But that’s not enough. We should also be able to monitor and control all these distributed assets that are not steadily generating and can congest the network in times of high renewable load. Simply put, we need to bring the grid to the 21st century.
Digging some news recently, the US committed $20 billion to the “Building a Better Grid” initiative. The world is gradually figuring out how the great grid upgrade is central to the green energy transition.
AR: Exactly. In the past, the grid was just about copper and steel. No means of viewing and controlling what's happening in the network, the flow of energy, the demand, energy generation, etc. This is changing, and it has been an ongoing effort for the past years in many countries to integrate sensors and monitoring systems to gather real-time data. For instance, every new asset connected to the grid (solar, wind, battery, etc.) now comes with a monitoring system that can be integrated remotely and casts data to the control room of a power grid system operator. These are Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and allow energy utilities to have knowledge of the conditions that prevail in a network at any given point and, therefore, take appropriate actions by controlling assets and performing real-time optimisations. This is the future we enable at SMPnet. We see our business as a catalyst for grid modernisation, helping power utilities have everything digitally available.
You mentioned sensors in every energy asset and real-time control of the network. I’d love to dive deeper into the technologies SMPnet uses and what’s required to modernise power grids.
AR: Let me give you an example of bringing power grids to the 21st century. Take a small part of the network in Greece. You have a substation. Downstream the substation, you have lines that connect to generating assets such as solar and wind, which produce energy and export it into the network. This energy has to pass through the substation, which has a capacity limit typically relating to the transformer's thermal limit. When solar farms generate maximum output during afternoon hours in summer, the substation’s capacity limit may be exceeded. Farms export energy into the cables, and cables are overloaded and overheated. Operators’ only option is to trip the lines (otherwise, the infrastructure would get destroyed), causing unnecessary shutdown of consumers in a particular region and affecting homes and businesses. Meanwhile, generating assets cannot be reimbursed for the energy they produce. This condition is called network congestion. We cannot allow this to happen, yet it’s a reality in many parts of the world.
Here’s a modern approach with our technology, Omega, at the helm. Picture a grid substation where operating managers have a comprehensive overview of the entire network downstream, including data from distributed energy resources (DERs). This data can be harnessed by a digital twin of the network — a virtual replica of the physical infrastructure. Using AI, digital twins analyse and simulate various scenarios, encompassing energy forecasting, CO2 emissions, renewable energy projections, and even suggest operational strategies to prevent issues (e.g. congestion, as mentioned earlier) and enhance overall efficiencies. Following this analysis, an adaptive optimisation system comes into play, continuously instructing energy assets to follow specific rules and adapt to changes in the network, such as disconnections or power imbalances. But that’s not all. To enable the grid to accommodate a high share of renewables and swiftly respond to evolving conditions, a real-time control system operating at the millisecond level is essential.
Our technology empowers grid operators to leverage all three pillars — digital twins, adaptive optimisation, and real-time control — to optimise network usage. We pride ourselves on being one of the few companies capable of offering controllability within a single electric cycle, equating to less than 20 milliseconds, in a wider area control scheme. This effectively unlocks true real-time operation of power grids, ensuring heightened security, cost-effectiveness of supply, and enhanced resilience.
What are the next steps for SMPnet?
AR: We started 3.5 years ago with my co-founder, Dimitrios Tzelepis. We’re both power engineers with PhDs from Imperial and Strathclyde with a vision to modernise energy. We’ve developed the technology and IP and proved its benefits for utilities through a number of installations, such as our work with Iberdrola, one of the world's largest electric utilities, while currently working on expanding our install base with prominent industry players worldwide. The company raised a seed round of $1.4m led by Marathon Venture Capital in May, and, at the moment, we’re a team of seven based in London, Glasgow, and Athens, combining skills from power systems to machine learning and more. We’re moving fast towards bringing our technology to more networks in Europe and the US and are currently undergoing an ISO27001 process.
Before we wrap up, there’s progress across many fronts in the energy space. From finding perhaps the largest lithium deposit in the world in Nevada, US, to the price drop of solar and wind, to achieving net nuclear energy gain. What are, in your view, some emerging technologies or trends we should be paying attention to?
AR: There are a few of them. I think cognitive high-fidelity digital twins have transformed the energy sector. These dynamic models of physical assets and systems can simulate and predict real-world scenarios accurately. Imagine a solar farm's digital twin adapting to weather conditions and energy data, forecasting output, optimising panel orientation, and improving efficiency. Now, real-time controls coupled with digital twins are not just about reacting to immediate events in the physical infrastructure, but this coupling allows grid operators to respond instantly to fluctuations, reroute energy flows, and balance supply and demand effectively.
There's also V2X or Vehicle-to-everything. We have seen the number of electric vehicles increasing worldwide, and soon, we will have powerful small batteries in our garages. Vehicle-to-everything is about utilising the energy in cars for other purposes when cars are not on the road. We can either use the energy for residential consumption or export it back to the grid.
Overall, we are gradually moving towards a decentralisation of energy. We have microgrids that operate independently with solar panels and batteries that power a particular region, say a university campus. This is a reality in many parts of the US. A decentralised network operation might even be favourable as we can cut the network into zones and operate independently. Thus, extreme events such as blackouts caused by typhoons, thunderstorms, etc., cannot propagate to the rest of the network, leading to increased security of supply and resilience. The technology we create at SMPnet helps microgrids operate more efficiently through real-time control and adaptive optimisation while handling grid following/forming transition without any shutdown.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Anastasi!
AR: Appreciate it, Alex.
Check out job openings here from startups hiring in Greece, abroad, and remotely.
AI-powered location Navenio (University of Oxford spin-off) secured $6.3m in Series A extension to optimise patient care by tracking staff and equipment in real-time. (link)
Perceptual Robotics raised a new round for its automated wind turbine inspection solutions with UAVs. (link)
GoCharlie, a startup that builds generative AI models for marketing, raised $2m Seed. (link)
Progressive Robotics (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki spin-off) raised a pre-seed round led by Genesis Ventures to make robots smarter and easy to use in a production line with AI. (link)
Pre-seed round for UniStudents, an app letting university students track their grades and keep up with news and announcements from Genesis Ventures. (link)
Startup accelerator VentureGarden accepting applications until October 15. (link)
Startups Founders Hub by Microsoft offers free access to tech stack and sales channels for startups. (link)
Lessons learned building a maritime startup with Antonis Malaxianakis, CEO & founder of Harbor Lab. (link)
How to build a multi-GPU system for deep learning by Antonis Makropoulos, Head Of Research at contextflow. (link)
Navigating the LLM space with Kostas Hatalis, CEO & founder at GoCharlie. (link)
Revolutionising maritime shipping through AI with Konstantinos Kyriakopoulos, CEO & co-founder at DeepSea Technologies. (link)
Building a talent acquisition journey for a tech company from Zacharoula Liarou, Senior Organisational Designer at REBORRN. (link)
Myrto Papathanou, Partner at Metavallon VC, on early-stage investing, female entrepreneurship, and more. (link)
Zaharenia Atzitzikaki, Design Executive & Business Coach, on no feedback culture and why your team isn’t speaking up. (link)
How to pass the interview for software engineering roles in Big Tech from Lambros Petrou, Senior Software Engineer at Datadog. (link)
Our team will be in Luxembourg on Sep 25 to host “Greeks in Tech”. You can RSVP here.
“Customer experience in eCommerce fulfilment” by CX Greece on Sep 27
“Automate a board deck presentation using Tableau” by Athens Tableau User Group on Sep 27
“SaaStock Local Athens” byUpset Partners on Sep 28
“Greeking out in London” by Endeavor Greece on Oct 6
“AWS Cloud Day Athens” by AWS on Oct 10