A solar panel at Ameren's 1.5-megawatt microgrid in Champaign, Illinois, one of the most advanced distributed-energy resource facilities in the country. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Energy News Network

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Brian Dixon, chief operating officer of Capital Innovators in St. Louis, Missouri, talks with Midwest Energy News about his company’s partnership with Ameren on an energy tech accelerator.

Utilities are not generally known for innovation. Most have been sheltered from direct competition and held to just a basic customer expectation: keep the lights on.

Things are, of course, changing. Markets have deregulated while technology and distributed generation have upended how utilities interact with customers. Energy companies are slowly but increasingly recognizing the need to adapt.

Brian Dixon

Enter the Ameren Accelerator, an energy start-up incubator based in St. Louis, Missouri. Its goal is to develop innovative technology through a partnership with power company Ameren, the University of Missouri, UMSL Accelerate and Capital Innovators.

The accelerator is a wild idea for an industry accustomed to slow, incremental change. Utilities operate in a heavily regulated industry, one designed in such a way that makes rebuilding the power grid to be smarter and greener in conflict with financial incentives.

“Our goal is to come up with solutions that are going to change the landscape of the energy future,” said Brian Dixon, chief operating officer for Capital Innovators. More than 200 companies applied the first year. Applications on the second round closed last month, with 330 companies applying from 40 countries and 25 states.

Ameren selected seven companies to participate last year. A handful are working on smart grid technology. For example, Hyperion Sensors is developing a smart transformer; Omega Grid, a software platform that facilitates peer-to-peer energy exchange, and WIFIPLUG, an open-source smart plug.

Dixon spoke with Midwest Energy News about the accelerator program and what’s on the horizon for energy technology. The following interview has been lightly edited for length.

Midwest Energy News: What’s it like when startup culture meets the heavily-regulated world of a utility?

Dixon: Ameren’s employees get to work hands-on with the startups and really infuse innovation back into their organization. They get to learn how fast startups move and how efficient they need to be with their energy, time and capital. It really spurs innovation with their culture and helps them connect dots internally with new and existing business solutions that they weren’t thinking about in the same way before. 

Each company that we invest in gets three to four of what we call ‘liaisons’ from Ameren who work with these companies on a weekly basis. A startup company gets access to that enterprise-level view of how their technology should be built and sold. But the employees are getting a tremendous amount of innovation to be fed back into the Ameren organization by working hands-on with the startup.

What are other the benefits for the startups?

From the startups perspective, they get to learn the ins and outs of the utility space from Ameren and its connections. They get feedback on how best to build their product through the lens of the energy company. They learn how to navigate the sales cycle and what it takes to grow their customer base in the utility vertical.

What are you looking for in a company?  

It really spans the entire energy spectrum. We have companies apply that are focused on grid efficiency, different types of internet of things devices and software, or cybersecurity. On the software side we have some really interesting companies in the artificial intelligence space, or blockchain and distributed generation, and data and analytics.

What are areas in the energy space where there is some type of technological innovation that is exciting to you?

Voice activated devices like Alexis, Siri, Google. We’re becoming much more in tune with using voice now to help things operate. And I think voice activated things will be integrated into a lot of products, both internally within the office space and externally in the field.

One thing that’s really going to start being implemented more, that’s reaching a better level of maturity is augmented virtual reality for the energy industry. Once it becomes more mainstream, we’re going to be seeing people in the field using augmented reality tools to provide better data insights on the conditions of certain assets.

How does that work?

Imagine somebody working for a utility in the field is able to look at the transmission wires or different types of large assets and get a perfect understanding through the data that’s being projected into their field of vision. This is what the current temperature is, or this what this particular asset is, or any important data analytics that could make them make more informed decisions in the field.

Kevin Stark

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.