By Noah Klugman, CEO and Founder
My name is Noah Klugman, and I am the CEO and one of three co-founders of nLine. I’m happy to get to write the first post for nLine’s blog where we will share what we’re up to, insights about our technologies and measurement methodologies, lessons we’re learning, and other thoughts about the development, technology, and infrastructure reliability spaces. You’ll hear not only from me, but voices and perspectives from all members of nLine’s team.
Unreliable infrastructure hinders economic development, daily life, and access to essential services — such as healthcare, water, and electricity. However, when good data doesn’t exist on infrastructure reliability, like in many countries around the world, it is much more expensive and difficult to correct any performance issues. At nLine, we build tools that dramatically improve the resolution of data available on infrastructure performance anywhere on Earth. We set out to do this because we believe the data we are collecting will be invaluable for increasing infrastructure reliability, and that subsequently our work will play a role in improving the quality of life in the communities served by that infrastructure.
Right now we are operating a large-scale deployment of our PowerWatch sensor to collect a primary source of data for the evaluation of a U.S. government-led investment into the electricity distribution grid in Accra, Ghana. The data contains high-frequency measurements of the duration of power outages, the number of power outages, and the voltage quality at households and businesses.
Our measurement methodology, which includes installing PowerWatch at outlets in households and businesses, is beneficial in a couple of unique ways:
- We do not modify existing infrastructure. By not requiring integration with any existing utility systems we can dramatically reduce both cost and time to deploy. Further, because we are not impacting utility property, we maintain true independence from the utility, a requirement of our Government of Ghana partners.
- We focus on the most impactful signals. While higher-cost sensors will provide features not present in PowerWatch, by focusing on signals directly requested by stakeholders — outage duration, outage frequency, and voltage quality — we have been able to further reduce measurement cost and complexity.
- We provide insights all the way down to the low-voltage network. While we cannot instrument every customer with a PowerWatch sensor like a utility would with a smart meter deployment, relatively small numbers of carefully placed PowerWatch sensors can provide a more accurate estimate of low-voltage performance than manual methods of tracking power outages such as call centers and more upstream methods such as SCADA systems.
The success of PowerWatch calls into question the concept that high-resolution infrastructure performance metrics are only available in the wealthiest areas. I am incredibly excited to be a part of dismantling that model, and we plan on not just making power quality measurements readily available but also branching into measuring other critical infrastructures such as water distribution systems and road quality. We have already assembled a pretty spectacular team who builds and maintains really innovative technology, and I know, based on our conversations every day, that we will be ready for the next challenges.
Back in 2017, Josh and I started working together as PhD students in Prabal Dutta’s research group, Lab11, at the University of California, Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Our research explored a problem: The economic and social benefits that power grids provide to a community are fully realized only when the grid performs reliably, yet in many parts of the world the performance of the grid is unmeasured and therefore difficult to improve (“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”). The current market solutions for grid measurements at the distribution level are expensive and complex to install, often leaving this data out of reach for resource- and capacity-constrained utilities and governments in low- and middle-income countries. So, as researchers, we set out to develop a way to deliver grid-reliability data to utilities, regulators, rate-payers, investors, and academics working on improving service reliability anywhere on Earth, with the grounding theory that by doing so we will be directly working to maximize the social and economic benefits of electricity around the world. Our research at Berkeley formally matured into nLine in 2019.
Our first project as nLine had us measuring power outages and voltage quality issues to support the monitoring and evaluation of the Ghana Power Compact. We deployed over 1,400 PowerWatch sensors directly to houses and businesses in rural and urban districts across the capital city of Accra. This validated our methodology and showed that we can run a deployment of sensors at scale, at a price point that (for the first time) should be affordable enough for any regulator, investor, or city-sized utility in the world.
The data is amazing. Our methodology provides higher-resolution data than many SCADA systems, can be deployed quickly and temporarily with no customer disruption, and is turn-key. We achieve this not through some technical magic, but instead through careful sampling, data cleaning, and automation. Our team carries a lot of our academic roots with us. We have published — and will continue publishing — both what we learn from our data and the methods we are using to improve the quality of our measurements.
Along with our work in Ghana, we are deploying PowerWatch in a rural context in Western Kenya to help understand how grid construction regulations impact power reliability outcomes; in markets across Nigeria to help the Rural Electrification Agency target the deployment of off-grid electricity solutions, and in healthcare clinics in Rwanda to start exploring the COVID-19 Vaccine cold-storage chain. We are also developing exciting new analyses, including using our highly-disaggregated data from Accra to explore issues related to equity and equality of grid performance that couldn’t previously be quantified. Each of these activities pushes an application forward that will improve reliability and continue validating our measurements across multiple geographic and power systems contexts.
Everyone at nLine is here because they care about the socioeconomic impacts of improving the reliability of critical infrastructure. For our services to have the most direct impact possible, we think carefully at each step about scale and sustainability. As such, we select partnerships in part based on whether the collected data will be leveraged and operationalized to improve the current state of power reliability and quality. We are not venture-backed, a deliberate decision to avoid mission creep. We take our work seriously and will continue to work hard to make sure that we provide the highest-impact insights to stakeholders.
We care about building a company that practices many of the ideals that excited us originally about research during our PhDs: scientific accuracy and transparency, innovation, and peer-review.
Our first product is the measurement of power outages (duration and frequency) and voltage quality at individual households and businesses. This data can support utilities seeking to reduce distribution failures and plan improvements in their distribution network, regulators seeking a data source independent from the entities they regulate, and investors looking to track performance outcomes of energy-improvement projects ranging from investments in grid-distribution infrastructure and service quality to scaling distributed renewable energy solutions.
We reduce costs traditionally associated with taking granular measurements, hardware customization, and field deployment in three ways:
- We handle the deployment. Stakeholders are busy and may not be engineers, so we are turn-key. Co-design high-level requirements with us and we handle the rest.
- We have developed tools to automate each stage of a sensor deployment. From training, to participant interaction, to post-deployment monitoring, our tools allow our deployments to scale faster than the size of our team.
- Our hardware is simple and standardized. PowerWatch is a proven design that can easily be reconfigured to take multiple types of measurements, reducing deployment-specific R&D costs.
I hope this post provided some context for who we are and what we’re trying to do. Future posts will go into more detail about our technology, our team, and what a deployment looks like.
If you are interested in working with us, or if you just have questions, please reach out! I’m always happy to talk about what is possible and what comes next.