Think back to the last time you experienced a power outage. Ever looked across the street to another house or apartment building, and seen their power remained unaffected, or experienced that your power took a while to be restored?
That’s because utility companies have little control over voltage and direction of power flow, especially in times of disruption — that is, until now. Switched Source, a startup out of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Michigan State University, has created a hardware device that allows utilities to better manage the electricity distribution grid.
Utility tech can be a little dense, so let’s break it down: Imagine if a tree fell on a power line, cutting off power distribution from a substation to your home or office. Usually a utility company would send out a crew to reroute power by opening what’s called a “field tie switch,” said Switched Source founder Charlie Murray. But that can take time and comes with its own risks and complexities.
“The reason utilities can’t operate with this switch closed at all times is because it leads to instability and power overload,” he explained. “Offering all the benefits of a closed switch without risking stability, our first-of-a-kind hardware device sits at existing switch locations and acts like an always closed switch but with a controllable valve.”
Essentially, this new invention allows utilities to dictate magnitude and direction of power flow, control voltage, and also allow for newer, more environmentally-friendly additions to the grid, like distributed solar technologies.
Plus, by not having to send a maintenance crew out into the field every time, utilities can save on costs. And by pulling the voltage down, utility companies can be more efficient with power.
Switched Source officially came together as a team in September 2016, while Murray was in business school and wanted to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions after working on business development at Invenergy, North America’s largest independent wind power generation company. He joined forces with the primary researcher and inventor of this technology, Prof. Fang Zheng Peng at Michigan State University, who was given an initial $2.5 million ARPA-E grant from the Department of Energy to help develop the prototype. They have secured a license to operate in all fields and all territories, filed two provisional patents, and have pilot agreements with two major utilities, with deployment of their product scheduled for next 10-12 months.
This traction with their initial customer base is what excites Murray the most, despite the challenges that come with operating as a cleantech startup in the hardware space.
Switched Source has seen some promising interest from incubators and pitch competitions, including the Clean Energy Trust Challenge, University of Chicago’s Innovation Fund (where they won $150,000) and New Venture Challenge (where they won second place and $80,000), as well as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation competition, where they placed third.
The startup is currently looking for electrical and mechanical engineers to help the team with the deployment of their pilot project commitments.
Edit: This article has been updated to reflect Murray’s correct role at Invenergy.