About three decades ago, Stephen Fernands underwent a religious conversion, gave up his Army ROTC scholarship at Penn State University, and earned a degree in economics on his own in just three years. Then he enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago to learn how to be a missionary.
After evangelizing in Chicago and South America, Fernands discovered that he also had a vocation for business. He and his wife, Rochelle, moved to Philadelphia to continue their education, and Fernands took a temporary job with Peco.
At that time, electricity markets were being deregulated and Peco assigned Fernands to its new Customer Choice unit to advise independent power producers on how to navigate the retail frontier, which was previously prohibited to competing suppliers.
It was a providential mission, and Fernands found a new mission.
“I realized, OK, maybe I should try to be more enterprising here,” he said. Following the advice of a Peco mentor, Fernands quit his temporary job and set up an outside consulting firm to advise independent power producers with whom he had established relationships.
His company, Customized Energy Solutions Ltd. (CES) has grown into a global company with 253 employees, most of them based in Philadelphia, and generates more than $ 40 million in annual revenue. Fernands, 50, from Massachusetts, is managing director and president.
CES has expanded beyond providing advice, to act on behalf of energy producers. It remotely monitors and operates generators and energy storage sites across the country from its central headquarters. It provides back office functions such as billing for retail energy providers.
Fernands compares it to FedEx, which promises to provide logistics advice to customers and then performs the service.
“We can give good advice and then, much like FedEx in the energy industry, we help people do it,” he said. Where is the best place to build a solar panel to connect to the grid? When is the best time to run a battery storage unit?
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CES occupies a place in the world of energy, invisible to most retail customers, where electricity producers, regional grid operators and local distribution companies such as Peco intersect.
The company plays a vital role as an intermediary for renewable energy providers who are assuming a larger role in responding to climate mandates. As more and more renewable energy arrives, this increases the importance of energy storage devices such as batteries and flywheels that can capture intermittent solar and wind energy and send it out. the network when customers need it most. It’s similar to conducting an orchestra, where CES asks a hydroelectric plant to crescendo, or a gas turbine to back up.
From a control room at the company’s headquarters at 1528 Walnut St., where the company occupies the top four floors, CES operators actively monitor or manage around 250 different energy projects across the country – renewable generators, power producers. traditional fossil fuels and energy storage projects.
With the click of a mouse, a CES operator can ask one of their dozen LED monitors to display a live video of the water level of a hydroelectric dam in Virginia, or to call the exit in real time of the Block Island wind farm. in New England, the country’s first commercial offshore wind project for which CES manages its transactions with the regional electricity grid.
“We see huge opportunities in offshore wind,” Fernands said. “We help them bid on the market, manage outages and plan. How do you foresee the wind in order to be able to program it and how do you manage it in real time? CES has two meteorologists on staff to forecast weather impacts on wind and solar production, as well as customer demand during periods of extreme heat and cold.
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In total, CES helps manage projects that produce around 12 gigawatts of electricity – that’s more juice that Public Service Electric & Gas Co., the region’s largest electric utility, sends to customers during the season. ‘a peak summer day. CES communicates with the seven regional power grids, including PJM Interconnection Inc., the grid operator in Audubon, Pa., Which manages power flows in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and 11 other states and the district from Columbia.
“Our biggest asset count right now is solar,” said Brandon McGee, director of market operations for CES, during a tour of the control room. “We have about 80 something solar sites. It is followed by the wind, and the battery grows quickly after that as well. “
Battery storage is at the center of CES ‘latest green energy project. The company plays a supporting role in partnership with Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest electric utility, and Tesla, which sells a lithium-ion residential battery backup system called the Powerwall.
Green Mountain has installed over 3,000 Tesla Powerwalls in Vermont homes since 2017. Powerwalls are primarily residential back-up power systems, but can also be responsible for discharging electricity to the power system during periods of time. peak periods of demand, thus increasing the supply of electricity.
The latest utility experiment goes even further by ordering residential batteries to discharge or consume power within a very short time – two seconds – to keep the voltage in balance on the grid. This feature, called frequency regulation, is essential to prevent dimming of lights, and it is a service for which network operators pay a premium. The role was traditionally played by producers of fossil fuels, including coal-fired power plants, but will increasingly revert to batteries as fossil fuel power plants retire.
CES software serves as a link between the New England power grid and individual Powerwalls, sending signals to devices to increase or decrease output, in seconds. The Vermont pilot project will examine whether deploying hundreds or thousands of synchronized residential battery systems has an advantage over using large-scale battery installations.
“We see this as kind of a future,” Fernands said of electricity storage systems.
Green Mountain pays residential customers $ 13.50 per month to use their battery systems for frequency regulation and promises not to drain batteries when extreme weather conditions are forecast and backup capacity might be needed.
“It’s a first to be able to bring together clean energy stored, distributed in small amounts in homes in Vermont, and help balance the grid that way,” said Kristin Kelly, spokesperson for Green Mountain. She said the utility was introduced to CES several years ago when he hired the Philadelphia-based company to help run a large-scale battery system tied to a solar farm.
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CES is also involved in a project at the University of Delaware exploring the use of battery systems in electric car charging stations in a network support role. The University of Delaware has also pioneered research into the use of electric vehicle batteries for grid support.
Much of the company’s business is now based on a software-as-a-service model, in which it hosts applications developed by its own team and makes them available to customers over the Internet. Fernands said the company employs around 50 tech professionals.
The company acquires new customers largely through referrals, he said. It also operates in five foreign countries: Canada, Mexico, India, Japan and Vietnam.
Fernands was so serious about expanding to India in 2010 that he, his wife and their three children moved from their home in Haddonfield to Pune, India for a year to better understand the country’s needs. The Indian subsidiary now has 75 employees and operates a testing laboratory seeking to extend battery life.
One of his projects explores how to improve the charge times of lead-acid batteries used in electric rickshaws, the three-wheeled vehicles that are ubiquitous on the subcontinent.
In 2016, CES acquired Powerit Solutions, a Seattle-based company that helps businesses lower their energy costs by reducing energy use during peak periods, a practice known as demand response.
Throughout the years of growing his business, Fernands said he did not lose sight of his original purpose when he went to Bible school in 1992. His faith is clearly present in the statement. ETUC mission statement, which includes an unusual proclamation: Things we desire to honor God and our customers with the quality of our services and solutions.
“I put that in there and it wasn’t a particularly bold thing to do at first because no one reads your mission statement when you’re a one-man consultancy,” Fernands said. “But we’ve kept it as part of our mission and really insist that we want to promote economic development, our customers and honor God and it’s important to the way we work.”
Fernands said the company employs “people of all different faiths and no religion at all,” but for him, conducting himself according to his Christian faith is essential to the success of the company. “As a company, we haven’t taken some of the shortcuts that others in our industry have, you know, Enron being the poster child for some of that.”