We are excited to share the inaugural issue of Planet OS Visionary Series — a round of exclusive interviews with ten most inspiring professionals in the transforming energy industry. It is an honour to have Brian Lakamp, the Founder and CEO of a smart city platform Totem Power as our first interviewee.
Q. Brian, your background is in the media industry, where your previous role was the President of Technology and Digital Ventures at iHeartMedia. When and how did you become interested in smart cities and distributed energy?
A. My interest started when I looked into solar for my home. That kicked off a journey of self-education and discovery around advanced energy. What I found is that the energy network is in the early stages of tectonic transformation… from a centralized, monolithic architecture to a distributed, dynamic future. When I realized the parallels between what happened in communications (as the Internet was being born) and what’s happening in energy, I was hooked. Bob Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com and creator of Ethernet technology, refers to the emerging energy network as the Enernet. I think that’s a great way to digest the scale and size of the opportunity ahead.
Q. Tell us a bit about your company Totem Power and it’s core technology. You have mentioned that Totem is both a physical product and a network.
A. We’re standardizing the “chassis” for smart mobility infrastructure. Energy, communications and data processing. That includes a physical product and a cloud architecture for management and optimization.
We ask the fundamental question, “Is energy storage the product or the feature?” We think about the battery in the context of a smartphone, where the battery is certainly critical, but not the focal driver of overall product value. To that end, we believe energy storage can be deployed at scale as an enabling resiliency feature for smart city and 5G rollouts that are coming. The storage can double as a high-value grid asset under normal operating conditions of the grid.
Q. In your recent article Energy Is The New New Internet you encourage startups to work on innovations for the transforming energy industry. Could you name a few specific problems that need solving?
“First and foremost, we need to solve problems related to resilience, renewable integration, and optimization of utility delivery networks. Longer-term, we’re focused on modernizing the grid to become the dynamic network necessary to support electric vehicles and broader electrification at scale.”
Q. The decentralization of both power generation and energy consumption will require sophisticated, data-driven approaches to the management and economics of storage, grids, transmission, and distribution. What are the key success factors for achieving this?
A. That’s 100% right. It’s about data. Expansion of e-metering and marrying real-time load data with secondary data sets is a big part of it. Historically, we’ve tended toward a coarse, monthly accounting of energy, with less focus on demand. Balancing the grid is ultimately about real-time demand. We’re still in the very early stages of collecting true, real-time data, so we have some work to do there.
To realize the full promise and potential of the Enernet longer-term, the utilities and regulators can enable new flexibility across meters. That’s where things get really exciting and where transformative new business models emerge.
Q. Unusual climate patterns and extreme weather events have become more frequent. How do you think smart cities and renewable energy utilities can use precise weather data to manage the power grid better?
A. Weather data is fundamental. Balancing the grid elegantly and optimizing our resources requires sophisticated integration of weather data. We need advanced systems to drive decisions based on weather data that determines solar generation, wind production, peak loads (during heat waves), and potential storm consequences, to name a few.
Q. At Planet OS, we know that big data plays an important role in making renewable energy more affordable. In your opinion, in which areas should companies collaborate more and share data to solve mutual problems?
A. Given the value of data, which equates to business advantage, there will be a natural tendency for the companies in the space to be guarded about sharing their data. Ultimately, those who have data can monetize 3rd party use, so I’m hopeful there. With initiatives like Green Button we’re headed toward more open, available data, but we have further to go. I’d love to see the utilities expand on that work. We’ll need consistent access to real-time commercial feeds to be truly transformative.
Q. There is a hypothesis that the cost of electrons is a race to the bottom, and ultimately energy will become almost free, creating space for a new economy around value-added services in energy. What is your view in this?
A. Assuming the energy is free and clean, it’s exciting to imagine that. The trends in solar and wind seem to point in that direction, but it’s important to remember that solar and wind are forms of energy, not stored energy. The next phase will be about making those generation sources capable of serving loads after the sun sets and during windless periods. I suspect we have at least twenty years of transformation around storage integration before we have fully nailed that need. It’d be great to get there faster and be proven wrong on that prediction, though!
Q. What is your vision for the future of smarter energy?
A. I imagine the next generation of the grid, the Enernet, as a living, breathing, dynamic and distributed fabric throughout our communities. I see a grid that can breathe in excess wind and solar production at scale, and exhale that stored energy precisely when loads demand it. I also imagine a distributed grid that can heal itself and island sub-grids when disruptions and outages occur. That’s the foundation we need to support healthy and resilient cities of tomorrow. It’s also the foundation we need to power the next generation of economic growth in those cities.
The next #VisionarySeries interview will come out in the second week of April. Stay tuned by following our publication or subscribe to Planet OS email newsletter. If you are curious about renewable energy, the role of data in the energy industry and tips and tools for data-driven businesses, I invite you to look at what we are doing with big data in the wind energy industry.