Speaking with Michael Gravely, the deputy division chief of the Energy Research and Development Divisions at the California Energy Commission, it becomes apparent how busy they are working on the next generation of energy solutions to help support California’s smart grid overhaul.

A big piece of work they’ve undertaken over the past few years is to understand the smart grid roadmaps and vision for 2020 of California’s key stakeholders, namely the “big three” IOUs, the major vendors, and the public utilities. The R&D Division provided these three separate contracting opportunities because the business cases and priorities are so different from these three perspectives. It is important as California moves forward to give each area an individual voice before attempting to integrate all efforts into a single State plan.

The first of these roadmaps, put together with the help of the Electric Power Research Institute, covers the vision of the major IOUs, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric. It was released in 2011 and put forth their implementation roadmap for 2020.

The vendors roadmap, put together with the management  of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is due to be formally approved and published in the next few weeks.

Finally the public utilities document has now been drafted and should be published by July of this year.

As Mike suspected though, differing visions are emerging, along with different timelines and deployment ideas. The job of the CEC is to try and tie them all together, and Mike comments: “What we’re trying to avoid is a smart grid that works one way in San Diego and another way in San Francisco and yet another way in Stockton, etc., so that we’re to have one system that operates effectively for the whole state.”

Of particular worry to the public utilities is that the larger IOUs will choose technology too complex and too expensive for them to purchase and implement, because the cost can’t be amortized across as large a population, which would make their rate hikes too high. So if they have to take separate routes, the state could end up with a patch-work of non compatible hardware and software at the district level, which would make its wider goals all the more difficult to achieve. Part of the value of these research efforts is to provide a venue for these three distinctly different groups to coordinate their efforts and future plans.

One of their major goals of the state is the introduction of 33% renewables generation capacity to the grid by 2020 as a minimum. Many others are looking to outstrip by some margin, but this will be a major stress test for those managing the meta-grid, from the California Independent System Operator down to the distribution management systems now being considered by many utilities.

To help meet these demands, the CEC has been working on numerous projects that should help balance out the intermittency issues associated with renewables and ensure the consistent, reliable delivery of energy to California’s population.

One such project has focused on the development of automated demand response, and the CEC is one the early initiators of the OpenADR standard protocol. Mike says “when you automate [demand response] you can get 3 to 5 times higher demand response than when it is done manually because you can apply this fast acting automated capability to many more grid services.  It is also more predictable. This isn’t such a big deal at a smaller local level, but when you’re dealing with 300, 400, 500 MWs of demand response coming on and going off, the grid operators like to know about this in advance to help them manage loads most effectively.”

Another major initiative has been on the energy storage side. They have worked with KEMA to assess the likely energy storage needs to support renewables integration in California, with the KEMA research results showing an additional 3,000-5,000 MW will be needed to help meet the intermittent  power demands by 2020. While this can be offset by additional automated DR programs or new generation capacity, a lot will need to come from storage, and so they have also worked with storage vendors to run successful field demonstrations and improve the efficacy of storage technology.

Just some of the other project Mike and his team are involved in are: Electric vehicle studies on the best way to integrate them with the grid and not blow the current transformer infrastructure, synchrophasor applications and how to model the types of information and data they bring to the transmission system, microgrid research projects to test emerging technologies, home area networks and behavioral studies to evaluate the effectiveness of energy management systems, and the best path towards widespread distributed generation in line with the Governor’s Energy Plan.

Another important aspect of the CEC’s R&D Division is their role in attracting and fostering new technology companies that could have commercial success in the energy market.

They have a mandate to bring to market products and solutions that can be successful in the market, which means a lot of time is spent reaching out to many diverse stakeholder groups, and they bring together entrepreneurs and engineers, venture capitalists, universities and research bodies, etc. to swap ideas and to develop new research initiatives for future funding and competitive contracts. Their work has paid off.

For example one company, who they saw in 2006, were literally building a new energy storage solution out of their garage, and with a Small Grant Program made by the R&D Division of less than $95,000, the company managed to build a prototype and a full technical report, which helped them attract early VC money and then further ARRA funding, so that by 2009 they were a company with a $47 million project to build a 25 MW battery system in Stockton and are creating over 100 new clean energy jobs in California.

Such success is likely to continue long into the future with the sheer number of collaborations and on-going projects taking place for Mike and his team in 2012, though with the goals they are facing equally large, it is going to take all this effort to deliver the expected results by 2020.