When Green Mountain Power became the first utility in New England to use solar energy stored in batteries to “shave” peak power demand from the grid — saving $200,000 in an hour — it was South Burlington’s Dynapower that made it possible.
The electricity from batteries is direct current, or DC; the electricity from the grid is alternating current, or AC, explained Chip Palombini, Dynapower’s Sales Manager for the Energy Storage Group. To put energy from its solar-charged batteries on Stafford Hill in Rutland into the grid on Aug. 12 to reduce demand for expensive peak power, GMP needed Dynapower’s “inverter” to make the connection from DC to AC.
“You need to put something between the wall outlet and the batteries,” Palombini said.
Dynapower has carved out a niche as a leading global supplier of the electronics to make this conversion from DC to AC, which came delivered in four parallel systems the size of shipping containers in the case of Green Mountain Power. Each can power 100 homes, Palombini said. Grid power storage is seen in power generation circles as the next big thing. As a result, a remarkable array of companies comes to Vermont to meet with Dynapower executives.
“You’ll see everyone from GE to Samsung, Panasonic and IBM, all come through the doors looking for our expertise,” said Richard Morin, a marketing specialist at Dynapower. “They traipse to Vermont for this little company with world renowned expertise.”
President Adam Knudsen said the best part is that Dynapower’s expertise is here to stay.
“If you look at the professional talent that … we’ve home-grown through our support of the University of Vermont and the technical colleges, it’s a great story,” Knudsen said. “Thirty-five percent of our engineering department graduated from the University of Vermont.”
The remaining percentage of Dynapower’s engineers who come from elsewhere can’t believe their luck, according to Knudsen.
“Some of our most senior power electronics people are global recruitments, but once they come in they don’t ever want to leave,” Knudsen said.
Taking on GE
Dynapower has about 200 employees in its 150,000-square-foot plant on Hinesburg Road with a wind turbine out front; a “bunch of mad Vermonters,” says Morin, who can not only engineer “these crazy things,” but also manufacture them in the back of the building.
Dynapower’s vertical integration — design and build — gives it an important advantage over the GEs of the world, according to Palombini.
“GE is a very large machine and they can do a lot of great stuff, but there’s a cost,” Palombini said. “With GE, customization is difficult. That’s what we do, custom installation.”
Customization like the system Dynapower built for the CuisinArt Resort and Spa on Anguilla in the Caribbean. Yes, the same Cuisinart that’s probably in your kitchen. The resort was burning an “astronomical” amount of expensive and smelly diesel fuel to desalinate salt water for drinking water, Palombini said.
When resort management explored the possibility of switching to solar power, the local utility wouldn’t let them connect solar to the grid. Dynapower came up with a solution.
“We delivered 20-foot shipping containers with the batteries and inverter in there,” Palombini said. “They built a solar array with one of our construction partners.”
Now, the CuisinArt resort can make up to 300,000 gallons a day of drinking water with self-contained solar power, independent of the grid. The job would have been easier with a grid connection like Green Mountain Power has, but the resort owner wanted to get the project done, and wrote a check for $600,000 to make it happen, according to Palombini.
“The great thing is it’s not just to make the golf course green,” Knudsen said. “It provides drinking water for the island. It’s a neat story about using technology to solve a real problem of grid dependency.”
From the Rust Belt to the Green Mountains
Dynapower began in Detroit in 1963, servicing the automotive industry with the electronics for metal finishing equipment such as the chrome-plating machinery for bumpers. In the 1980s, the founder’s son, Peter Pollock, came to the University of Vermont to study in the engineering department, met a girl and fell in love. Once he took over the business, Pollock decided to move the entire operation to Vermont.
“Peter’s father said, ‘You’re going to pick up a profitable Rust Belt business that serves the automotive industry and move it to Vermont? Are you crazy?'” Knudsen said.
Knudsen said if Dynapower had remained solely in its legacy business of chrome-plating bumpers, Pollock would have been crazy. Instead, the company branched into three additional areas: an energy storage group; a mining group; and a military group.
The mining group makes the equipment that separates metal from ore, using electricity.
“It’s a very similar process to chrome plating,” Palombini said. “You take the ore, pour liquid over it to create a sludge, pass a bunch of electricity through it, and now, instead of getting chrome out of solution onto a wheel, you’re getting copper particles out of a mud slurry solution onto some starter plates. All the copper particles are now separated from the dirt and rock.”
The military group makes frequency converters for missile defense systems, solving another diesel fuel-related problem.
Previously, defense systems ran off diesel generators because in the event of an attack, the electric grid is likely to be compromised, Palombini said. In forward operating areas, the cost of a delivered gallon of diesel fuel is hundreds of dollars, making the missile defense systems more expensive even than desalinating water on Anguilla.
“What our system does is enable them to connect to the grid and also to generators,” Palombini said. “If the grid goes down they can seamlessly transition to generators.”
Dynapower doesn’t release revenue figures, but Knudsen, 46, said annual revenue is in the tens of millions of dollars, and he plans to double that number by the end of 2018, pushing the company close to $100 million. Knudsen expects that growth to come from all of the areas the company works in, not just energy storage.
“It’s neat to have a role in building the power electronics that help the world optimize the use of energy, including renewable energy,” Knudsen said. “That’s just cool.”
This story appeared online on Nov. 22, 2016 @ BurlingtonFreePress.com. Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DanDambrosioVT.