Laki Power Marries Sensors and Energy Harvesting to Protect the Grid—Exclusive
In our exclusive interview at Iceland-based Laki Power’s HQ, the company shares how its blend of sensing, data, and energy harvesting aims to revolutionize grid monitoring.
There's no doubt that, in today’s world, access to electricity is as fundamental of a human need as clean drinking water or shelter. Yet, building and maintaining a grid that reliably transmits electricity to all people has remained a challenge, especially in places with extreme weather.
In these harsh environments, grid operators suffer from unexplained and frequent grid damage, resulting in loss of electricity to consumers and millions in costs and repairs to the energy companies. There are few places on Earth where this challenge is more vivid than in Iceland, where the northern climate wreaks havoc on electrical infrastructure.
Óskar Valtýsson (left), Ósvaldur Knudsen (middle), and All About Circuits' contributing writer Jake Hertz (right) looking at the original LKX-MULTI prototype
Out of this need arose Laki Power, an Icelandic company that has found a solution to grid maintenance through the use of innovative and proprietary hardware and software solutions. I had the opportunity to meet with CEO Ósvaldur Knudsen and Founder and CTO Óskar Valtýsson at Laki Power’s headquarters in Reykjavík, Iceland to hear about the company and mission and technology firsthand.
Grid Failures in Extreme Weather
In places with extreme environments, damage to transmission lines and other grid infrastructure is unfortunately commonplace. In an ideal world, grid operators would be able to proactively take preventive measures to avoid these calamities, but, in practice, this has proven an extremely difficult challenge.
One reason that preventing grid damage is so difficult in extreme climates is because of the plethora of variables which could impact the grid. Some limited examples include high winds causing line galloping, weight from ice buildup pulling lines down, and air salinity causing flashovers and failures between lines. At the same time, these weather events are most likely to occur in remote locations where it is difficult or impossible to directly monitor the lines.
The grid is at risk of a number of failures. Image used courtesy of Laki Power
The result is that outages are likely, but grid operators rarely know the exact cause of the failures. As Knudsen explains, it’s important to know this information in order to deal with them.
“Grid operators are trying to understand why they’ll have outages seven or eight times throughout the winter. As it stands right now, they really don’t know the causes, they just know that they have outages.”
Without understanding the causes, there is no way to prevent future failures. To the consumer, these failures are catastrophic because they prevent the transmission of electricity in mission-critical locations. To the grid operator, these failures are also catastrophic because they cost tens of millions of dollars to repair.
Shortcomings of Current Solutions
A solution to these challenges is to employ line-monitoring hardware on the grid to track failures and their causes. However, to date, most of these technologies have failed due to one major shortcoming: power.
Monitoring environmental variables in remote locations require a grid-monitoring device that can operate as a standalone unit. External power stations to power grid-monitoring devices are not ideal due to the remote deployment of the device, and battery-only solutions are not realistic because device uptime and functionality are limited by battery life.
Some solutions have attempted to use inductive energy-harvesting, where the device harvests power through the magnetic fields emanating from the transmission line, but these have suffered from low efficiencies.
As Knudsen tells us “You'll see pieces of equipment that are placed on a high voltage line and are pulling through induction are generating only a few watts of power. When you only have a few watts to work with, you're limited in what you can actually do.”
Without a constant and abundant source of energy, line-monitoring devices are going to remain limited in functionality and effectiveness.
Laki Power’s Energy Harvesting Solution
A career-long employee of Iceland’s National Power Company, Valtýsson saw this glaring challenge and decided to do something about it. Like all great companies, Laki Power then began in Valtýsson’s garage.
It was there where he invented the key technology that lies at the heart of all of Laki’s solutions today. This technology is Laki’s patented and proprietary induction energy harvesting architecture.
As described in US Patent US 2020/0373850 A1, Valtýsson’s invention is a high-efficiency induction system for generating a direct current power output from an AC transmission line. The architecture consists of multiple secondary windings around a single primary wire.
Each secondary winding connects to a downstream asynchronous MOSFET rectifier bridge for high-efficiency AC/DC conversion, the outputs of which can be summed to create the desired output rail values. Each winding also has associated control circuitry to selectively remove the winding’s contribution to the output, allowing for precise and dynamic control of the output power.
The system architecture for a single secondary winding. Image from US Patent US 2020/0373850 A1
Describing the system, Valtýsson says that using MOSFETs for their rectifier was an important choice.
Instead of using diodes for our rectifier, which have an inherent 0.7 V drop, we use MOSFETs that only have losses across the channel resistance, which is often under 3 mΩ. Because of this, our efficiency is almost 98%, which allows us to achieve high power conversion with almost no heat generation.”
As a result, Valtýsson says that altogether their technology can typically generate anywhere from 100 W to 300 W from a high-voltage line.
Unlocking Grid Monitoring
With the advantage of a high-power, high-efficiency energy harvester, Laki Power is now able to create grid monitoring devices with unprecedented functionality. Out of this, Laki has created two main products: the LKX-MULTI and the LKX-SURV.
The LKX-MULTI. Image used courtesy of Laki Power
MULTI is the company’s flagship product and serves as a high-functionality line-monitoring device. The device, which clamps around a transmission line conductor, incorporates a variety of sensors that provide a grid operator with line data such as line current, tilt, roll, galloping, and vibration. Furthermore, the device integrates environmental sensors which track data such as salinity, surface contamination, ambient temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and wind.
In the MULTI, the devices integrate cameras for capturing photos and videos of the line. The SURV augments the MULTI with the incorporation of thermal and optical imaging cameras, additionally allowing for the detection of wildfires.
A look inside the LKX-MULTI. Image used courtesy of Laki Power
Leveraging a cellular connection, the device then shares this data intermittently with a grid operator through Laki’s device dashboard. For power efficiency and data efficiency, high-bandwidth data such as video is only communicated to the dashboard if a certain trigger occurs, such as the line pitch exceeding an acceptable threshold.
With this data, Laki power enables grid operators to understand the causes of line failures as well as take preventive measures when failures seem imminent.
“Operators can pair together a lot of data and images to do some very interesting analysis,” says Knudsen.
“We provide real-time data so grid operators can take real-time actions, but these organizations also have a lot of people doing the after-the-fact analysis of a situation. These groups can also use captured data to understand what went wrong and then go and make some mechanical changes or other adjustments to try and prevent failures in the future.”
An image from one of Laki Power's line monitoring systems showing icing along a power line. Image used courtesy of Laki Power
Just Getting Started
With a suite of innovative hardware and software solutions, Laki Power is a promising company with the potential to solve a grand and important challenge. Today, the company is still in its infancy, currently holding a team of nine people and having just started pilots in locations including Iceland, Greece, Turkey, Argentina, Norway, and Canada.
Moving forward, however, the company has ambitious plans which include acquiring funding, growing the team, and exploring new technologies such as drone-charging stations for autonomous, drone-based line monitoring. Other future plans may include adding machine learning technology to the device for real-time image classification, threat detection, and prediction.