A Columbus-based tech startup that started in Akron aims to help electric companies better monitor and maintain their distribution systems and has found a partner in North Carolina that’s helping it gain traction nationally.
The Columbus company, Exacter, was started with technology from the University of Akron and the University of Akron Research Foundation. It also received an early assist — not to mention a key idea it uses today — from the city of Akron.
“It was the University of Akron that enabled us to create a sensor that goes on fleet vehicles and garbage trucks and that’s brought on a great opportunity for us,” said Exacter Founder and CEO John Lauletta.
That’s right — garbage trucks. Exacter licenses technology developed at the University of Akron, which it uses in sensors that monitor power lines. It uses garbage trucks to carry the sensors up and down every street in town, getting readings from lines along the way.
The sensors track specific radio frequencies that are associated with electricity leaking from lines, insulators, or electric equipment. That data is then used to show power companies where lines are losing power and, more importantly, where a line or component is likely to fail next.
Initially, Exacter thought it would be able to mount its sensors on police and fire vehicles, which would take the roof-mounted sensors all over the city to get readings on above-ground power lines. But Akron Director of Business Retention and Expansion Samuel DeShazior had a better idea.
“They said: ‘We could use police cars and fire trucks, because they go everywhere,’” DeShazior recalled from the city’s initial discussions with the company a couple of years ago. “I said, ‘That’s true, but I don’t know if there’s a predictor that this police car will go down this street on this day … what goes down every single street, every week, is a garbage truck.”
That was a great idea that enabled Exacter to prove its technology works, Lauletta said.
That proof landed it a new partner in the form of SAS Institute of Cary, N.C., a company that uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based services to offer clients a broad range of data analytics and related software solutions.
Two years after the companies began working together, Lauletta says the relationship has enabled Exacter’s technology to gain traction in the utility industry nationally.
“SAS wanted to expand their utility-industry footprint,” Lauletta said. “They created a new product for SAS called Grid Guardian AI that uses our data to help utilities manage their grids.”
But SAS has more reach and gets more closely involved with utilities on system-side work than Exacter was able to do, Lauletta said.
“They provide enterprise-wide systems so it’s a much bigger engagement for them with a utility than it is for Exacter. We tend to do project-level work and not engrain ourselves with the utility,” Lauletta said.
Craig Foster is SAS’s Advisory Business Development Executive and responsible for helping to grow the company’s Grid Guardian business.
Getting utilities to change how they do things is a slow process, Foster said, but some utilities are starting to see the benefits of predictive modeling and preventative maintenance over the old method of “waiting for something to break.”
SAS has so far signed up four utilities to begin using the Exacter technology and SAS’s cloud-based monitoring system. Three have not agreed to be named yet and the fourth is Randolph Electric Membership Corp., a small utility in Asheboro, N.C., that serves about 32,000 people.
It’s a small start toward getting more participants in a very large market to change how they do things, Foster said.
“Now, it’s reactive maintenance only,” Foster said, meaning most utilities simply run things until they break. “We’re trying to get them to jump on board to a new system . . . but making a paradigm shift is hard.”
Utilities do have some incentive to be more proactive. For one thing, many regulated utilities are entitled to make a return on the money they invest in their systems. If they can persuade their public utilities commission to sign off on preemptive maintenance or system improvements, they also get permission to charge their customers an amount that would bring them a specified return on those investments.
To prove to those commissions that SAS and Exacter’s product can enable utilities to spend wisely on proactive maintenance and improvements, Foster said, his company is marketing Grid Guardian to the public utility commissions themselves, and also building in new tools that will show the benefits of specific maintenance expenses.
SAS could already tell utilities exactly what lines and components need service, Foster said. Today, it can tell them specifics about potential outages if a piece of equipment is allowed to fail as well.
“Now we have a very simple and straightforward way to prioritize and identify nodes likely to fail and then look at how many customers would be impacted,” Foster said.
By looking at previous outages and how a specific piece of equipment was involved, the system can often also tell a utility how long an outage will likely last if a certain piece of equipment is allowed to fail.
“We use all of that to prioritize (maintenance and repairs),” Foster said. “It’s cool stuff.”
For now, SAS is marketing Grid Guardian only in the U.S. But SAS does a large portion of its business internationally, and once the technology gains acceptance here SAS hopes to take it abroad, Foster said.
Utilities don’t tend to change quickly, and it’s taking time to persuade them to adopt an entirely new approach to their maintenance programs, Foster said.
But SAS is gaining momentum. It’s now deployed Grid Guardian in four states with four utilities, and more are gaining interest, he said.
“We’re talking to folks in a handful of other states as well now,” Foster said. “And there’s more than a handful of additional utilities we’re talking to.”
In addition to saving utilities money on maintenance, SAS and Exacter have another marketing tool they use, which is becoming more potent every year: fire prevention.
One of the things that Grid Guardian does, aside from preventing power outages generally, is to identify power leaks on utility poles that can heat up bolts and other metal hardware exposed to the escaping power. Those metal items heat up and can cause pole fires that can then spark wildfires, Lauletta and Foster said.
Exacter’s sensors can find a fault in a system before other existing methods, Foster said.
“What we are advocating is to give yourself the most possible lead time to detect and plan . . . and if you detect anything abnormally hot you can prevent wildfires,” he said.