June 24, 2019

If you’ve spent any time in the San Francisco Bay Area, you probably know how terrible traffic congestion is. The 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard found that San Francisco commuters who travel during peak hours lose an extra 116 hours a year. That’s roughly double the time it would take, without congestion, to get to work and back home again.

We’ve been there. SepiSolar’s East Bay office is located close to San Jose and Silicon Valley. But a rush hour trip between destinations can easily take an hour or more. The problem isn’t getting better. Is there anything we can do about it?

One intriguing solution is urban air mobility (UAM), a budding industry that promises to take ridesharing services to the sky, using helicopters and eventually vertical-lift air taxis. In July, Uber plans to begin transporting customers between Lower Manhattan and JFK International Airport. A trip that can take 2 hours in traffic will be reduced to 8 minutes.

In meetings with UAM entrepreneurs and a recent visit to the 2019 Uber Elevate Summit, SepiSolar has committed to the engineering and design of microgrid systems for a new generation of transportation infrastructure. Through our experience getting approvals for solar and energy storage projects, we have solved many of the permitting and interconnection challenges that UAM companies will face.

Bringing together transportation and energy technologies not only helps UAM take flight. As we’ll explain, it also creates a new opportunity for microgrids to scale.

One type of distributed infrastructure meets another

Microgrids and helipads, the takeoff and landing platforms for helicopters and air taxis, have more in common than you might think.

For starters, both are structural systems that need access to the sky. If planned for the roof of a building, a project engineer must show that the roof deck has load capacity to support the weight of either system. In addition, either system must be able to resist maximum wind speeds at the project site.

Microgrids and helipads also have to comply with building and electrical codes and standards. In a young industry, there can be confusion and inconsistency in the way codes are applied from one jurisdiction to the next. Sometimes, even from two inspectors in the same jurisdiction.

Importantly, both systems provide benefits that serve the broad public interest. Microgrids make our electrical systems more efficient, reliable, and environmentally sustainable. Helipads have the same effect on our transportation system. By developing helipads near the most congested transportation nodes—like San Francisco’s financial district, where traffic routinely backs up to the Bay Bridge—the technology can help clear bottlenecks regionwide.

What rooftop aviation can learn from microgrids

Just as fuel costs are an issue for traditional airlines, electricity costs will help determine the success of next-generation helicopters and air taxis. Before asking an electric utility to supply energy for an aircraft fleet, UAM developers should understand how utility fees work.

Large energy users usually pay a monthly demand charge to cover the energy-generating capacity needed to satisfy demand at any time. The demand charge is based on a customer’s maximum energy usage captured during a short period of time.

If you kept the power off most of the day but charged a helicopter with a 100 kilowatt battery just once, the demand charge would be based on the time you spent charging. The demand charge, not including the fee for the electricity itself, could easily cost thousands of dollars per month.

Utility demand charges can make or break a rooftop aviation project.

Instead of sourcing all electricity from the utility, UAM developers can partner with a microgrid company to create a network that generates solar energy, stores energy in batteries, and provides intelligent energy management to achieve the lowest cost of electricity.

The SepiSolar team has industry-leading experience designing energy storage systems for demand charge reduction. CEO Josh Weiner was among the first in the industry to create a financial model showing how to improve return on investment by matching storage system outputs with on-site energy consumption.

Weiner has also applied numerous sections of the National Electrical Code and the UL code for energy storage projects to secure permitting approval in jurisdictions where there were, and in some cases still are, no established protocols for interpreting code.

Scaling urban air mobility and microgrids

UAM today is where distributed energy was almost 20 years ago. It’s a young industry built on promising technology that lacks the uniform standards needed to drive rapid growth. Bring these industries together and you’ll find that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

We have already described how microgrids can help UAM scale by providing a cost-effective electricity source. One that uses renewable energy and doesn’t strain the electric grid. But what opportunity does UAM bring to microgrids?

One obstacle to microgrid market growth has been the need to customize systems for each project’s energy consumption needs. Helipads can be standardized. And so can the microgrids that manage their energy supply. Once UAM companies offer a standard helipad and microgrid solution, the industry will truly be ready to scale.

The potential use cases are not limited to moving commuters in and out of the workplace, either. UAM companies can help deploy critical infrastructure. They can deliver food and water in the aftermath of an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood. Or they can set up evacuation zones to transport people in an emergency.

Together, UAM and microgrids open up new possibilities.

Stay informed

To learn more about urban air mobility, see highlights from the Uber Elevate Summit and the Paris Air Show. During the Paris Air Show, an Airbus-owned company, Voom, which operates an on-demand helicopter service in Brazil and Mexico, said it will soon expand service to the US. The Voom website says the San Francisco Bay Area will be the third service area.

For the latest information on microgrid design, including microgrids for urban air mobility, follow SepiSolar on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

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