When addressing the energy transition, one of the most neglected chapters is its effect on electricity distribution lines. Conceived a century and a half ago to transmit electricity in only one direction, they are not prepared to receive the surplus energy that comes from solar panels, which raise the voltage and can cause power outages. A problem that is added to that caused by the rise of charging points for electric cars and other green devices that, when used massively during the hours of greatest consumption, have the opposite effect on the network, but equally worrisome: they reduce the system voltage, which can damage appliances and other electrical equipment.
These situations would be easily avoided with good real-time data processing that would allow decision-making. But as Pablo Arboleya, founder of the Asturian company Plexigrid, points out, “high voltage operators have this capacity, but not always medium and low voltage ones”. These have all kinds of sensors in the network, but “they often lack an integrated structure.” That is why he and two other industrial engineers, Alberto Méndez and Rubén Medina, have created a platform for these operators under three main lines: “Visualize what happens at each point in the network, perform complex calculations [que anticipen comportamientos] and allow flexibility, which is the ability to act on the system, regulating energy consumption and absorption”.
Although Arboleya, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Oviedo, had spent several years researching how to create digital twins —computer replicas that react to stimuli as the real system would—, the idea did not take shape until 2020, already mediated by the pandemic. The person who raised it was Méndez, a former partner of his in the race and a link with the third founding partner, with whom Méndez had coincided working for the Gamesa wind project in China. They launched with 21,000 euros and “for several months” they financed the firm “with personal savings”, although they were favored by soon signing an agreement with EDP, the distributor that operates in Asturias.
The software that they have created is installed on utility servers, is operated by them autonomously, and easily interacts with various data sources. “The usual thing is to link it to, at least, the geographic information system, the advanced measurement system, and the meter system,” reveals Arboleya, who does not hide that the most innovative Plexigrid module, the one that allows sending orders to the system, is the one that they have been least able to develop commercially. For now, they are only testing it as a pilot, but that is something that does not worry them too much because the other two operations that their platform allows, making the state of the network visible and performing calculations in real time, “already generate enough added value.” “They make it possible to send crews of fixed-shot operators when there is a breakdown, configure the network so that there are fewer losses or detect fraud in rigged meters and illegal couplings”.
The firm entered 100,000 euros in 2021, but in 2022 they have billed 700,000, according to Arboleya. This was possible thanks to the fact that its clients already include two of the four Spanish operators and another two from Sweden. As for the business model, it is based on an annual recurring payment and, although it will not bring profit in the short term, it has generated interest from EDP’s vehicle for risk investments; from The Venture City, another venture capital fund based in Miami, and from the Regional Promotion Society of the Principality, which last year jointly invested two million euros in a round that according to its founder valued the company at 10 million.
Plexigrid is based in Gijón, and of its 26 employees, “20 have been trained in Asturias, a community that prepares the best, but that suffers to retain talent”, describes Arboleya, and explains that most of them come from two master’s degrees to to which it is linked: one for Electrical Energy Conversion and another for Sustainable Transport that has the Erasmus Mundus European seal of excellence and that the Asturian institution shares with Coimbra, Rome and Nottingham.
In the firm they make a banner of a certain activism, the one that opposes investing in more cable and more transformers as consumption peaks rise, because it is an inefficient model —the maximum capacity is only used for a few hours— and because that investment has repercussions on the invoice. A complaint that the European institutions are making their own, but that, as things are, is not compatible with encouraging the connection of devices to the network. “That’s why there are only two options left: either solutions like ours or poor energy quality,” says the entrepreneur.
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