Nowhere in the detailed wrap-up report on a huge energy demonstration project in 2013 in the Pacific Northwest was there mention of an important fact:
Nobody knew with absolute certainty what would happen when they flipped the switch.
“Just because something should work, technically, is no promise it’ll work,” explained John Stampfel, VP & GM of Electrical Engineering Services & Systems at Eaton. The company had joined customer PGE in its bid to participate in the Oregon component of the massive, five-year Department of Energy project to prove the technology infrastructure for energy smart grids.
“We had the necessary systems and engineering skills and experience, but making it real was the challenge.”
That challenge was why Eaton participated in the project, and was one of a handful of government-led initiatives it works on because. As Stampfel put it:
“It lets us advance solutions and solve power problems.”
Innovation was hard-wired into the project, starting with an application remit that defined a set of outcomes, and not a completed job spec like a typical engagement. This allowed Eaton to think beyond the immediacy of its proven switchgear, inverters, and other technologies, and look at novel models for complexity and scale.
While it could reply on its development processes, the staffing was more challenging, because corporate research had to interact with a variety of technology teams. The company identified a core group who’d travel regularly to Portland from its offices around the country, so as to make sure the project stayed in sync with PGE and DOE.
“A GANTT chart doesn’t cause innovation.”
Much of its initial strategy survived the first few months of getting organized, but Stampfel said that some aspects of the plan it thought would be hardest proved to be even more so.
The biggest innovation challenge was that Eaton had to build the demo system without disrupting PGE’s electricity services to its residential and commercial customers. The “utility feeder” that supported those customers needed to be reconfigured with new tech and software.
“You can simulate small scale things in a lab, like putting an inverter and battery to a test,” Stampfel explained. “We could test parts of our solution live, but never all of it at the same time.”
He doesn’t remember the exact moment they flipped the switch, maybe because engineers aren’t much for drama (there was no power outage, and the system performed as hoped). It’s more likely that the Eaton team was confident that it had done all it could to ensure its innovation would succeed.
“We’d made step change advances in control systems, control algorithms, and other technology IP that we can apply to future projects.”
In fact, those algorithm innovations enabled Eaton’s subsequent participation in a DOD project to manage power at forward operating bases with mobile micro grids. Another recent project is improving the resiliency and efficiency of a US Army base utilizing these innovations in a campus microgrid project.
“I think collaboration is a key driver of innovation. We can design, test and develop the best products and solutions, but working with customers to solve critical challenges is by far the best laboratory,” Stampfel said.
“In my experience, that kind of collaboration helps us take innovation to a whole new level.”