Hoping to pull the plug on power outages

Princeton firm pitches its technology as solution to vulnerabilities of the grid

December 03. 2012 3:00AM


The days following Hurricane Sandy were good days for generator sales, but as the state begins to rebuild, one New Jersey firm is hoping companies and governments take a more comprehensive approach to keeping the lights on.

Microgrids are costly, says Darren Hammell, but so is fuel for a generator when the power goes out.

"The idea of blackout power outages was sort of like an idea to most people, but when it actually happens, it can be really painful, especially for businesses that haven't really prepared for it," said Darren Hammell, co-founder and executive vice president for business development at Princeton Power Systems, in Lawrenceville.

Hammell's 11-year-old company designs and manufactures advanced inverters that give clients the flexibility to harness a wide array of technologies, including solar, power storage batteries, wind power and diesel generators.

"Your standard inverter has the capacity to do one thing — it will hook up to a solar array, or you could hook it up to a battery bank," said Amanda Scaccianoce, the company's marketing and communications administrator. "Our inverters have the ability to do multiple things at once."

The outgrowth of that capability has been an emergence by Princeton Power as a leader in so-called microgrids. The relatively new term refers to a self-sustaining energy system designed to provide benefits whether or not it's connected to the wider electric grid. A typical grid might include a solar array, storage batteries and a backup generator. Those batteries can be discharged to ease demand on substations at times of peak use, but the system also can be taken off the electrical grid to provide power during outages.

"So if you're able to work both on-grid, when you're providing services, and then off-grid, when you're providing security, you're not just getting a lot more value out of that asset," Hammell said. "I think that's started to become clear maybe two to three years ago, when the technology reached a level where you could actually do that."

Microgrids are costly, but Hammell noted the prices of solar components and batteries have dropped significantly. He said the cost for microgrids comes up front, whereas a diesel generator becomes quite pricey when fuel prices are high.

Maxine Ballen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Technology Council, said she's been "impressed with how creative they are and how entrepreneurial they are," she said, calling it "a great example of a New Jersey homegrown company."

She's not the only one to see Princeton Power as a New Jersey success story.

"I think the ecosystem that we have here has really been important to the success of this company," said Kathleen Coviello, director of technology and life sciences at the Economic Development Authority, which has provided assistance to the company. "When you look at investors and the management team, they all have a long history in New Jersey, and we married that up with a very young bright Princeton grad — and it was the mix of those factors, I think, that allowed this company to succeed."

While New Jersey has been a good home base for the company, it hasn't been the firm's top market. That would be California, where the company designed its first commercial microgrid on Alcatraz Island in 2009. Princeton Power has yet to do a microgrid project for a client in New Jersey, though last year, it completed a large demonstration microgrid on Washington Road, in Princeton.

California has also proven a ripe market due to it willingness to embrace green technologies, Hammell said. Just last week, the company unveiled a solar-to-electric vehicle charging station at the San Diego Zoo. The 90-kilowatt solar panel canopy uses Princeton Power inverters.

John Holmes, senior technology development adviser of San Diego Gas & Electric, said the New Jersey company is on the forefront of technology that could soon be widely deployed in California.

His company "chose to work with PPS because of several unique attributes of their power inverter systems, and their interest and willingness to tackle the uncharted territory of solar photovoltaic to plug-in vehicle charging," Holmes said in an e-mail. "The zoo project will help drive the evolution of vehicle charging forward as integration of various forms of renewable energy continues to grow in electric utility operations."

Hammell hopes the infrastructure rebuilding that happens post-Sandy will lead more companies and governments to consider microgrids and other, more sustainable technologies.

If all goes well, Hammell said the company plans to add sales and manufacturing jobs next year. Its Lawrenceville headquarters has room to roughly double in size.

"At a high level, we've seen a lot from governments looking for ways to prepare for the next storm or to harden infrastructure," he said. "So I'd say we've received a lot of calls or attention."

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com

On Twitter: jaredkaltwasser


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