AI-empowered grids pave the way for second electrical revolution


Every day the promise of silicon chip solutions is being realized in computers, vehicles, mobile devices, appliances, and many other categories of powered products. For a variety of reasons, one major sector that has yet to benefit from siliconization is the building of electrical grid, a global infrastructure landscape that’s ripe for transformation through 21st century technologies and ingenuity.

In the coming years, silicon-based, AI-empowered electrical endpoints will enable a building’s electrical infrastructure to provide a robust built-in smart building ecosystem, as well as energy and environmental awareness, enhanced life safety solutions, resource management, and communication capabilities.

Figure 1 Electric grid is ripe for transformation by employing 21st century electronics. Source: Amber

Until now, the long service life of traditional devices and size constraints of existing gang boxes and circuit breaker panels have contributed to a lack of appetite among electrical manufacturers to make fundamental changes to core components such as outlets, switches, and circuit breakers that rely on century-old technology. Traditional endpoints require large electromechanical parts to function, which have limited design innovations due to the need for universal compatibility with existing form factors like single gang boxes and circuit breaker panel infrastructure.

This is about to change.

The unfolding opportunity

Recent breakthroughs in solid-state control of electricity have given electrical device manufacturers a real opportunity to leverage modern intelligence and robust data sensing in products that can be easily installed in any building on the planet without having to rewire.

A system-on-chip (SoC) can easily be integrated into existing endpoints in any number of Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors or communication components to expand functionality and deliver fully-connected smart building intelligence that leverage existing gang boxes and circuit breaker panel. This innovation makes it simple to turn every room’s light switch, outlets, and circuit breakers into micro computers with up to 10 times the sensing capabilities and smart features.

Figure 2 Smart outlets combine safety with intelligence. Source: Amber

Individual endpoints demonstrate a significant improvement over existing devices, yet their true power lies in working throughout a building to form a unique and disruptive power management and connectivity ecosystem. By providing actionable data, the technology offers immediate opportunity to improve everything from fire safety to energy savings to indoor air quality. One benefit that’s already been proven is drastically better fire protection through power surge mitigation.

A demo video shows Amber’s digital power control technology detecting and eliminating high-voltage spikes 3,000 times faster than mechanical parts.

A floor-to-ceiling upgrade

Consider a skyscraper in a busy city. At every point from the building’s main power panel to an apartment owner’s outlets, new technologies can provide previously impossible benefits. The first point of contact could be an energy traffic controller that intelligently monitors power sources to optimally combine available wind, solar, battery, grid or generator power to maximize efficiency. Moreover, it reduces costs and helps manage external events, including power outages and over-stressed grids.

Next in line are the circuit breakers that deliver power throughout the building, which can now track energy usage in real time while eliminating the threat of dangerous electrical arcs. This is because the breaker is solid-state with no moving parts that can form an arc. Dangerous faults that produce these arcs are sensed thousands of times faster than the conventional electromechanical breakers and are mitigated long before these faults are big enough to become dangerous.

Figure 3 Circuit breaker, the foundation of electrical infrastructure, is being transformed with solid-state technology. Source: Amber

With integrated wireless communications, a circuit breaker could provide immediate data on the specific endpoint that caused a trip, including whether it was a slow-trip, and enables wireless shut off or resetting. Also, embedded intelligence operates fast and with deep understanding of the electrical waveforms; that enables the virtual elimination of false and nuisance ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) and arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) trips.

Finally, power is delivered to the endpoints like outlets and light switches, which can be designed to include any number of sensors for specific needs. There’s no limit to what they can offer, from moisture detection and voice control to intercoms and scheduled automation. Security sensors, micro cameras, air quality detectors, pressure sensors, wireless transmitters and receivers, and even motion detectors can be built into every endpoint solution. With this unprecedented level of sensing and control, smart endpoints can greatly improve the scope of coverage and value delivered by smart building automation, access control, fire control, and security platforms.

These are not new ideas, but the challenge of actually implementing them has prevented these solutions from appearing on the market. What makes the new technologies unique is the ability to fit all the electronics into the small fixed spaces of the standard universal single gang boxes and circuit breaker panels.

Second electrical revolution

While newer power generation plants such as solar and wind farms are revolutionizing how we generate electricity, silicon-based endpoints are revolutionizing how we use it. No matter where the electricity is coming from, the power of solid-state control with embedded intelligence dramatically improves the reliability, energy efficiency, safety protections, and overall value of a building’s existing electrical infrastructure. The scale of opportunities may be as big as what followed the introduction of smartphone or solid-state TVs, leading to untold innovations in how building owners and society manage electricity usage.

A key component to the excitement and success around these technologies is that they are retrofit solutions, so no new construction is required to add new benefits and capabilities. As early as 2023, building owners, universities, transit centers, property managers, homeowners and others will be able to transform their living and work spaces into truly intelligent, sensor-rich environments that deliver exponentially greater value than traditional or even the current simplistic smart outlets and switches.

This new solid-state technology transformation is nothing short than the opportunity for electrical products manufacturers to upgrade every electrical endpoint, in every building on earth to silicon architecture with modern embedded intelligence. The next electrical revolution has moved from the distant horizon and is accelerating into clear view.

Thar Casey is founder and CEO of Amber Solutions.

Steven Bakos is senior director of Switching Power unit at Infineon Technologies.

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