Fort Collins, Colorado

Founded: 2002

Privately owned

Employees: 44 (33 in Fort Collins)

Founder and CEO Sunil Cherian is pushing a smarter electrical grid – powered by distributed, renewable sources – into the mainstream.

And that grid of the future will be powered by distributed, renewable sources of energy.

Only it’s not far future, it’s near future, says Cherian.

The trillion-dollar question; “How do you take a portfolio like that and run systems reliably? We’re turning the system upside-down.”

Spirae offers software and other technology to power producers, utilities, and major users. The end goal is electricity efficiency. Distributed Energy Resource Management Systems (DERMS) is a big category for the company.

“That’s the technology required to make this all happen,” says Cherian. “What does it mean to bring all of these systems together? That’s where we are at as an industry.”

It follows that there’s a near-unanimous push for integration. “Everybody from electrical utilities to large power and solar manufacturers and even the startups, they’ve already identified integration as one of the key areas they’re looking to tackle,” says Cherian.

Cherian says that now that many of the technological hurdles have been cleared and the price of renewable energy has dropped, the smart grid is primed for liftoff. “These things that are coming in are smart devices that can talk to each other and interact with each other,” he notes. “You now have the intelligence to operate efficiently.”

While more of the company’s revenue is derived from utility customers, he says that Spirae has more customers who are developing generation projects. “They have more opportunities to roll out more resources faster,” says Cherian.

Spirae worked with Energinet.dk in Denmark to develop the InteGrid Test and Development Laboratory at Colorado State University. It’s one of the most advanced facilities in the world to test new grid technologies.

“It allows us to mimic a small portion of the grid,” says Cherian. Spirae uses it to test and develop new products and CSU uses it in a wide range of research. Customers “can kick the tires on stuff they want to roll out,” he adds.

Spirae’s work has included a massive pilot project with Energinet.dk in Denmark. “They wanted to essentially operate a power system with as many local sources as possible. They grew from a few megawatts total to over 60 megawatts spread over 1,000 square miles,” says Cherian. “It could be separated from the larger transmission grid.”

The demo fan from 2006 to 2012, and established an important framework to move forward in Denmark. “A lot of models for regulatory changes are being put in place to allow people to develop systems like that,” says Cherian.

People are pushing ahead with a wide range of microgrids that “operate with grid connectivity 99.9 percent of the time,” he says.”Some of them can be separated from the grid and run independently.”

Spirae piloted a model microgrid in Fort Collins, and now there are currently dozens of microgrids online in California, the Northeast, and military installations across the country.

Challenges: Integrating renewable generation into the grid. “Even now, there’s a sense it’s hard to integrate large amounts of renewables,” says Cherian. “There’s an assumption you’ll have power-flow problems.”

Integration represents a challenge in itself. “Those issues are compounded by how these things are managed . . . at the point of interconnecting,” he adds. “They don’t always talk to each other.

Opportunities: “Our growth has been driven by commercial activity where there’s a strong incentive to bring in renewables to reduce the cost of power,” says Cherian, highlighting the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada, as well as California and the Pacific Northwest.

Needs: “Our number-one need is finding competent people,” says Cherian. “That’s one of our big limitations. We need people who can hit the ground running in a couple of months, as opposed to a couple of years. It’s a development problem, it’s a power systems problem, it’s a sales problem — finding the right people is hard.”

He also says the company could use some regulatory reform that incentivizes a smarter, more integrated grid. “That’s really the lagging part.”