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The digital circuit breaker and why it matters
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The digital circuit breaker and why it matters
A conversation with Ryan Kennedy, CEO of Atom Power.
11

The lowly circuit breaker was first patented by Thomas Edison and hasn’t been updated much since — until Atom Power CEO Ryan Kennedy came along and made a digital version. In this episode, he describes the basics of the digital circuit breaker, the ways it’s making a difference in the EV charging market, and its gamechanging potential.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

There is perhaps no building block of the electricity grid more fundamental, ubiquitous, and overlooked than the humble circuit breaker. Every electronic device that is attached to the grid runs through a circuit breaker, a device that automatically shuts off current in the case of a fault or surge.

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Currently, though they have become extremely reliable, circuit breakers still rely on technology that was patented by Thomas Edison. They operate purely through electromechanical forces, with no digital control.

My guest today, Ryan Kennedy, is the first person to develop, patent, pass UL testing with, and commercialize a digital circuit breaker. It is solid state — that is, it has no moving parts — and current is controlled entirely through semiconductors.

Ryan Kennedy
Ryan Kennedy

In addition to being faster and safer than electromechanical equivalents, each digital circuit breaker contains within it its own firmware and software, which can be programmed to emulate, and thereby replace, any number of other software-driven devices like demand management systems, load controllers, meters, and surge protectors.

Kennedy's company, Atom Power, is currently focused on the electric-vehicle charging market, offering smart load balancing and management from a centralized circuit board, replacing the need for complicated hardware and software in the EV chargers themselves.

But the ultimate applications for a digital circuit breaker are endless. Everywhere they are attached, a grid becomes a smart grid and appliances become smart appliances. If even a substantial fraction of today's circuit breakers could be replaced with digital equivalents, it would bring unprecedented visibility and control to millions of distributed energy devices, enabling all sorts of sophisticated demand management.

I was extremely geeked to talk to Kennedy about the basics of circuit breakers, their application to EV charging, and the many possibilities that lie beyond.

Alright, then. Ryan Kennedy, welcome to Volts. Thank you so much for coming.

Ryan Kennedy

David, thank you for having me.

David Roberts

This is awesome. I'm so interested in this widget and its possibilities, but I think to help people get their heads around it. Before we get too deep into anything, let's just start at the most basic level. For those of us who were humanities majors and never took any electrical engineering or anything, let's just talk about what is a circuit breaker. I know people are very vaguely aware of circuit breakers. They are in a circuit box in your garage. Occasionally, your power goes out, and you wander out to your garage and flip switches around and try to see what works.

But, I think that's probably the extent of most people's knowledge. So let's just start there.

Ryan Kennedy

Circuit breakers, electrically speaking, are one of the oldest products on the market. They first were invented, at least patented by Thomas Edison to show you how far back they go. But, they're effectively a method of interrupting the flow of electricity when things go wrong. Too much current, short circuits, things like that. The purpose of the circuit breaker is to simply open the circuit when those things happen and protect from fire, primarily.

David Roberts

And, presumably, protecting the appliances and the things on the other end of the wire, too right.

Ryan Kennedy

Generally, that's the assumption, though I don't know that it's necessarily the explicit purpose. I think the more explicit purpose is to prevent fire. That could mean your equipment may go bad, in the process, but generally speaking, to prevent fire and hazardous conditions from electricity.

David Roberts

And so, every appliance, or device, or anything that uses electricity from the grid is connected to the grid through a circuit breaker. Is that true? Is that a universal rule?

Ryan Kennedy

That's right. Actually, the easiest way to visualize that is to think about the home or apartment, where you have a panel with breakers in it that typically open the front door and you can see breakers in there, and you flip switches and things go wrong. So basically, you have a big power feed from the utility that comes into that home to that panel, and then out of that panel, power gets distributed through each one of those little circuit breakers out to individual loads in your home, such as hot water, HVAC, lights, receptacles. That scales out. Commercial buildings and industrial buildings and data centers are the exact same thing.

I mean, there's more breakers, and they often get bigger, but it's the exact same architecture across the entire planet. Or the circuit breaker always is the thing that sits in front of the thing that consumes energy.

David Roberts

Right. And so, the purpose of these things is to basically shut off current if something goes wrong. How do they do that currently?

Ryan Kennedy

There's a couple of different ways, but the most predominant way is it gets into a little bit of engineering speak. So I'll try not to dive too deep, but basically, it's through thermals and magnetics. So, there's kind of two situations you would have. Let's just pick on the home a little bit because the same problems scale upward to commercial, industrial buildings. When you say, plug in way too many things into the outlet, the breaker will trip. And that's tripped through thermals, means that too much current is flowing, things get hot, and some expansion happens inside of the circuit breaker. And, mechanically speaking, it flips a spring, and causes the breaker to open.

David Roberts

So it's not a heat sensor. It's literally the heat expands something physical, and the physical change trips something.

Ryan Kennedy

It literally expands the metal inside of the breaker to open it up. That's what happens. The second, there's two methods—that was thermal—the second is called magnetic. That mechanism, it operates physically the same way. The actual springs and levers inside of the breaker open up the same way. But what causes it is different. So, magnetic happens when you have, say, a short circuit. Don't do this at home, but if you took one of your wires from your home and just put it into a pool. Lots of current flow all of a sudden, really really fast. That's called a short circuit.

And you don't want to wait for things to heat up because that's when really bad things happen. So what happens is an enormous amount of current starts flowing through that circuit breaker, creates a pretty quick magnetic field that basically pushes the metals apart inside of the breaker to open it up, as well. So it's very much a passive device in the sense that there's nothing in them that say, oh, that's that, or this is that, so, therefore, I need to do this. It's a reaction of the metals inside of the product itself. It's quite an old technology, actually.If you open up the circuit breaker, it looks like a mousetrap condensed.

David Roberts

Yeah, tiny little mousetrap that's basically set off by heat or a magnetic field. You think about electricity these days. You think about all our sort of digital devices and digital controls. And it's a little bit wild that on every single line going to every single device, there's this mousetrap, just so old fashioned. That always struck me. It's so weirdly old fashioned. A little piece of metal with, like, springs on it that springs shut to cut off your electricity. So it's very mechanical. Let's say electromechanical, as you say.

Ryan Kennedy

Yes, very established technology that is, in today's world, relatively ancient from a technological standpoint. But, to achieve those basic results of circuit protection, they work. The basic results of circuit protection.

David Roberts

Right. And it's passive, as we say, just responds to perturbations, and, I guess you would say, dumb, in that, it doesn't know there's no awareness of what's happening or why it's happening. It's just metal expands, it flips, it cuts off.

Ryan Kennedy

That's correct.

David Roberts

So there must be millions and millions and millions of these things. I mean, if there's one of these things between every electrical load and the grid, there must be billions out there in the world.

Ryan Kennedy

Likely, yes. I think your first number was correct. Millions and millions and millions.

David Roberts

So what you've done is make a digital circuit breaker, which works differently than the electromechanical. So why don't we just start with if it's not a physical reaction, if it's not a physical thing happening inside this digital circuit breaker, what is happening? How does it work?

Ryan Kennedy

We can dive into the technical and how it works, and then it'd be good to talk about kind of why we're doing that. So first, the technical. And the reason I say that is because, well, breakers work. Why do anything to them? Right? But technically speaking, what we've done is we've created a digital circuit breaker. More specifically, we call that a solid state circuit breaker. What that is is saying, hey, instead of using mechanics or mechanical devices, meaning like metal on metal, the things we just talked about to conduct electricity through a breaker, let us use semiconductors instead.

So semiconductors are a broad ranging topic, but basically means that you can control current with a small digital input much like you can on your phone or computer, et cetera. But scale that up to power and say well, let's make a circuit breaker with semiconductors so that you can now interrupt, in the case of protection, the circuits when bad things happen with semiconductors instead of mechanics. With that, we overlay. So, what happens when you go to a semiconductor approach? It is very much an analog, as if you said what's the difference in a rotary phone versus a smartphone?

It's making that leap all at once. Because now with digital control being semiconductor control at the breaker, it means that you can now put smart things inside of the breaker and make it do things and add value that it typically didn't have. That's what we're doing.

David Roberts

I just want to stress on the core function of shutting off current in danger. Even on that core function, it's faster. It's better and faster than a mechanical device. Is that right?

Ryan Kennedy

That's correct. By multiple orders of magnitude. So to give you an idea, we are, roughly speaking, about 3,000 times faster than most mechanical breakers in the market. That equates to two things. One is safety. There's some old footage of us, that we don't do so much anymore, of slapping hot wires together to kind of show that safety function. Don't try that at home either. So that's one thing which is actually quite important when you scale into larger buildings because there's more energy and more utility and short circuits can be explosive events. So it definitely helps in that regard.

David Roberts

And you say conventional circuit breakers work, but we should note that there are faults, there are fires, there are arc—what do they call them? Arc.

Ryan Kennedy

Arc flash.

David Roberts

Whatever—yeah. They're not 100%.

Ryan Kennedy

That's right. What's interesting about—not so much in residential although this can't happen in residential—but when you scale up to, like, the larger buildings, commercially in the industrial space and especially in data centers where the utility services are very large, you can have catastrophic events from short circuits that are balls of fire. Now, the breakers will open, but that doesn't mean a ball of fire didn't happen in the process. Right. So that does happen. I mean, in the worst case in my in my past life, I used to design buildings and also worked for, you know, a contracting firm.

So I've seen, particularly in one instance in a high rise building where there was a short circuit in the electrical room on, like, the 19th or 20th floor, and it blew the doors off of the electrical room. And these are like commercial grade steel doors that got blown off the electrical room. So it's an amazing force that can be had when you get into the bigger buildings. But, I digress a little bit. It certainly eliminates that problem. Let's put it that way. Go into a semiconductor just purely based on speed.

David Roberts

And that's just because a digital signal travels at the speed of light. Right. And it's just faster than any mechanical reaction.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, inherently a semiconductor is going to be, like I said, including propagation delays and things like that within the compute and sensing, we're around 3000 times. And to give you an idea, that's in the microsecond range as opposed to millisecond range or millisecond spurl in the case of mechanical circuit breakers. Now, okay, micro milli. But electricity does move virtually at the speed of light. So arc flash propagates not quite that quick but pretty quick. Whereas that time really really matters. So yeah, the impact to the safety is effectively arc flash just doesn't happen on the output of our product, even in the largest utility services.

David Roberts

So you get the basic function of the circuit breaker is faster and better. But then, as you say, you have this device that has semiconductors in it and you can put other stuff in there too. So maybe just describe like, I know what a circuit breaker looks like. It sort of fits in the slot in my circuit box, so I have the vague idea kind of what it looks like. What does your thing look like? Is it the same size? Does it, what is it composed of? What does it look like?

Ryan Kennedy

Today, what we have on the market doesn't look so much like what you would see in your home. It looks more the size of a commercial grade circuit breaker. So can't fit in the residential panel yet, with a strong emphasis on yet, but we do have a similar form factor of commercial grade circuit breakers.

David Roberts

And is that just the difficulty of shrinking down little computers and stuff? I mean, is it that simple?

Ryan Kennedy

Not quite the compute, it's more the power semiconductors that actually do the switching. So we're on this incredible curve that probably could take up a large portion of this conversation but also simplify it to basically mean that the world of power semiconductors is advancing quite under the hood actually of everything else that's happening. Power semiconductors are what enable electric vehicles to be as efficient and as effective as they are. Power conversion and solar—UPS has lots of things power conversion related. They are advancing at a pretty rapid rate from a power density standpoint. Power density meaning like how much power you can actually pack into that power semiconductor.

So power density is going up, size is getting smaller. That plays into our own internal strategy as a company to optimize the form factor in the coming couple of years to where it becomes much more of a universal product that can fit into existing panel boards. But today, we have—it looks like a small box that fits into our—we manufacture panel boards as well, so you don't have to figure that out, but we figured all that out for you. Make panel boards, circuit breakers, everything as a whole system.

I always say that there's two major components to a solid state breaker. There's a brain and a heart. The brain is the control system, the stuff that software defined, that makes the thing work, provides cybersecurity, things like this. And then there's the heart, which is the power semiconductor that the control system attaches to. Yeah, very much like a phone, in a way, in the sense you have a brain, you have a heart and a phone as well. And that combination creates a pretty powerful component. And electrically speaking, that's what we're doing in this space is really enabling far more than we used to.

David Roberts

Right. So maybe one way to think about it is that electromechanical, old school circuit breakers, only had hearts. And now you've added a brain to the equation.

Ryan Kennedy

You could see it that way. Yeah, absolutely.

David Roberts

And so if all these things are digital and if everyone has a little computer in it, basically, if we could think of these as tiny, tiny, tiny little smartphones, I know one thing that comes to people's mind whenever I discuss digitizing anything is security, cybersecurity. So if your power in your home or your commercial building or whatever, if every bit of it is running through a tiny little computer, people, I think, naturally wonder, like, what happens if they get hacked or someone takes over, can control the power flow through my entire building, et cetera, et cetera. So how do you deal with security?

Ryan Kennedy

Ultimately, circuit breakers are life safety devices. That's the core function. That's the phone call and the phone right? It has to make the phone call.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

So we're life safety devices. So when you shift from purely hardware to software defined hardware, in any industry, the right approach is that cybersecurity is the number one priority in software. That's been our approach the whole time. Now, there's a couple of ways to dice that. One is to say, the way we describe it is, there's Stuxnet and then there's hackers. And so we want to guard against both, and we call it Stuxnet as in, if you know what that is, that was the uranium enrichment thing that read all about that some other time. But the point is, in that case, the biggest threat is to make a critical device be something that it's not supposed to be or do something that it's not supposed to do.

So that is priority one to say, okay, above all things, the breaker can't be made to be something that is fundamentally not and create an unsafe condition. So how we're attacking that is really good. I'll just tell you that, There's some secret sauce there that effectively amount to there's built in safeties that are still digital, but you basically can't get into under any circumstance. So that's priority one. And then the next priority says, okay, well, if we solve that, which we have, then the next one is to say, well, how do we keep folks from coming in and just say, shutting power off or doing funny things.

Shutting power off is probably the number one funny thing there. But how do we prevent that? So, I'd like to say that in the world of software, there's this standard out there, and you follow that standard and you're good. That is not the case with cybersecurity for anybody. It's always evolving, and you're always trying to tackle it and address issues as we go along. But the core things that we do is end encryption on both software and hardware, which means that we have encryption elements physically on the breaker, encryption elements physically on our onsite management tools and cloud software.

So that's actually quite critical, is to have the physical encryption as well as the software based encryption. There's many ways you could go about cybersecurity in the sense of many different entities have cybersecurity standards, but the one that we're headed towards now is called FedRAMP. That's really the direction we're headed from a standard standpoint. That's to do work for the federal government. Things like this, you have to be FedRAMP compliant or certified. So that's the direction we're headed. We're not certified, yet. We anticipate later this year we will be. But nonetheless, that's kind of how we've addressed it. That is one of those areas that I wish there were this, like, gold star. You got that. So everyone's good.

David Roberts

Right. Because there is a gold star in the circuit breaker safety. The heart part, the UL standard is pretty well...

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, UL is kind of our FDA equivalent in the world of circuit breakers. Yes.

David Roberts

Right. And you guys have passed those tests?

Ryan Kennedy

We have. We're the first and only company in the world who have ever done that, for a solid state digital circuit breaker.

David Roberts

Yeah. And one thing, I don't know if we mentioned this, but this made an impression on me when I first learned about it, so I just want to throw it out there. I think when people think of networked devices, they think it won't work without the network. So it's just worth sort of emphasizing, here, that every one of these circuit breakers has the firmware and the software and the operating system inside it. So it is, in some sense, a self contained little machine like, it does its thing, even absent networking.

Ryan Kennedy

Yes. We just call that fully autonomous. So, yes, they're fully autonomous devices.

David Roberts

Right. And one more thing I wanted to mention about the move from conventional to digital and circuit breakers is that this eliminates a lot of equipment that traditionally goes around circuit breakers in sort of commercial and high value areas. Sort of safety equipment that kind of gets larded around circuit breakers. So maybe just talk a little bit about that, sort of like the kinds of things that you've consolidated into one device here.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, absolutely. So it's worth stating that the easy part of the power distribution world or electricity is that, as we said, there's a circuit breaker that sits ahead of everything that consumes energy. The hard part comes in where if you look at, well, what do we actually do with electricity? All electrical things require really three things. So any application of electricity requires protection, visibility, and control. This is related to HVAC, certainly related to EV charging. In the case of HVAC, you have protection in the sense of a circuit breaker that feeds the HVAC system. Inside the HVAC system, you have a control mechanism that actually controls the flow of energy in its own little way. And then you have visibility either through software or through the thermostat. You could say the same thing for basically everything, electrically speaking. EV chargers, certainly same thing. Every EV charger that's been built out there, with the exception of Atom Power, is fed from a breaker, always, inside the EV charger, whether it's a pedestal or wallbox, there's visibility and control. And you could say the same about elevators and many, many other things that we use electricity for.

So basically the way we look at it is what do we do with electricity? Well, we want to protect it, but we also want visibility and control. So what we've done is basically to say, okay, well, let's offer superior circuit protection, but let's also have the ability to have visibility and control because, well, that's what we do with electricity. All within the circuit breaker. And so I think you asked a sort of broader question like what are we doing that's kind of adding some of those things in. Inherently being a semiconductor device, it's easy to control the flow of energy. As simple as that sounds, that's monumental because it is extraordinarily difficult to make a circuit breaker that can universally control energy. Meaning, universally, as in the home or in the data center, or in a commercial building or industrial building with the same device.

David Roberts

Yeah, we should pause here, just to add, because I don't know that we ever actually mentioned it, but physical circuit breakers, old school circuit breakers are also designed for a specific voltage, right? They're sort of locked into a specific voltage. Whereas if you're doing it with computing power, you can adjust to different voltages with the same circuit breaker. Is that right?

Ryan Kennedy

So, think of it more as different amperages.

David Roberts

Amperages. Sorry, I get those confused.

Yeah, it's okay. So if you go to, name your hardware store. If you go there and you go say, "I want to buy breaker." The questions are going—your menu, I should say, is going to be, well, do you want a 15 amp, a 20 amp, a 25, a 30, a 40, 50, 60, etc. And then, you know, you, you buy that product for what it is, say, call it a 30 amp breaker to feed my, I don't know, hot water heater. That's going to be fairly typical. It's always going to be a 30 amp breaker forever and ever and ever. Which means from a UL standpoint and a safety standpoint, you can only put that on 30 amp circuits.

Right?

Ryan Kennedy

I will say, yeah, that is an interesting benefit that I think evolved along Atom Power's way, which says, well, now that you become a digital circuit breaker, you can effectively be a lot of circuit breakers in one, which is what we do. And you can program our circuit breakers from 15 amp all the way up to 100 amp. And it's you all listed for each increment in between. So that's pretty powerful when you consider, roughly speaking, it depends on your metric. About 90% of the breakers on the planet are 100 amp and less. So we're hitting a huge market with one single product.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

So that's certainly one thing from a protection standpoint, and thank you for reminding me, on that. That is a feature I often gloss ever, and it is unique for what we're doing. But the visibility, obviously, through the software we have and the ability to see the breaker and control the breaker is the other thing. And to be able to tell the breaker what it is. And I think that's the key thesis within Atom Power, which is to say, well, let's not just create a digital breaker, but let's create it in a way to where you can tell the breaker what it is instead of buying a breaker.

Well, because you have to for protection and then having to buy a specific built appliance for the application that you need to perform, like EV chargers are a strong symptom of that.

David Roberts

This is a perfect segue here because the first time we talked years ago, I think you were sort of messing around with big commercial facilities and industrial buildings and kind of a little bit all over the place, but you just got $100 million investment to do, specifically EV charging applications. So tell us why all these things we're hearing about digital circuit breakers, why they're specifically well suited to EV charging.

Ryan Kennedy

So you're right about the earlier engagements we had, with great customers, were in the industrial space, primarily. Certainly prior to the investment, we saw a need, a major pain point, when it came to electric vehicle charging at scale. So charging vehicles has been around quite some time. For the longest time, it's been relegated to if it's outside of the home, to be candid, often optics put a couple here, a couple there just to have them. Right. But as we've progressed, particularly in the 2020s, here we are seeing, and we saw this is why we're in this space is we saw this, that there were some major, major problems with charging at scale.

Meaning like, instead of a few chargers put in hundreds into a single facility or complex, heck, even tens, but certainly in the hundreds, things become really problematic really fast.

David Roberts

And that's fleets. We're talking about basically fleets.

Ryan Kennedy

Fleet, multifamily, and hospitality.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, anywhere where you're going to have lots of chargers. But yeah, particularly fleets, always need lots of chargers. Multifamily, as well. So the problems start becoming quite extreme in those cases. To give you an example of what I mean by this, we, we have a project up in Queens that is roughly now it's, you know, close to 700 charging stations that's going into generally the same location that is on the same, you know, substation grid, network, etc. If you do the math on that, you're basically connecting up to between six and 7 megawatts of potential load onto that grid, just in that.

So appliances don't solve that very well, which is more or less what level two chargers are today. There are appliances that sit in front of the car and you plug it in. When you start talking about that scale, it's really critical that your infrastructure is the smart thing that can actually solve pain points such as, hey, how do we not do that?

David Roberts

How do we not have a bunch of cars charging at once and overload basically the substation, because you could fry a substation if everybody like if you had 700 chargers going all at once.

Ryan Kennedy

Absolutely. Things like that. Things like me as a customer, how do I not spend the amount of money that you would otherwise spend on the infrastructure alone to make that happen? Meaning transformers, wires, switch gear, things like that. And then, with that much energy, how do you not just say, don't overload the grid, but how do you actually, effectively, energy, manage in real time against things like peak loads, or peak demand, or time of use and keep energy cost as low as you can and charge during the right times of the day and when there's a grid event and things like this.

All that requires real time infrastructure intelligence.

David Roberts

Right. So the EV charge has to be networked with one another. They have to be communicating with one another, basically. Is that not something they can do now? If I'm looking at a fleet with a bunch of chargers today, are the EV chargers just freestanding, isolated, or did they talk to one another now in other ways?

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, oftentimes they are. But there's where the problems really started was in the fleet, because that started becoming apparent, right, the more that they were putting in. To answer your question, can EV chargers today, outside of Atom Power, talk to one another and do some level of energy management? The answer is certainly, yes. That's the start of the conversation though, the devil in the detail says, okay, put that in and make it code compliant with our national electrical code and get the inspector to sign off on it and guarantee the billing owner that that's going to operate always, no matter what, safely. There's where things get problematic.

So, if you are the life safety device and you're already connected and you got to buy a breaker anyway, for each EV charger, things become so easy to do. Now it's built into our panels breakers. It means the National Electrical Code to the t. Inspectors have no problem with it. And there's a lot of things that become super easy all of a sudden. So without going into a ton of complexity, being the infrastructure, being the breaker, being the panel board where the breakers sit, makes it super easy to solve those major pain points with very little effort from the customers' standpoint.

David Roberts

Right. And I think the way to think about this, and kind of what turned the light bulb on for me, is if your intelligence, your software, your coordination, et cetera, is in the circuit breakers that are in the circuit board, that means the EV chargers themselves can be dumb. So that like the things that are out there in the parking lot can just be dumb conduits. Right. Because the control is elsewhere. And this is something that's always struck me about the EV charging space. It's just like you have these, today, you have these like really incredibly complex high power computers sitting out in parking lots. Which always kind of struck me as a little bit insane, that normal customers are interacting so directly with something so expensive and kind of complicated.

Ryan Kennedy

Well, you're hitting on the next pain point, which is, again, at scale that becomes very problematic that your most expensive asset in that ecosystem now sits in front of the vehicle, typically outside.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

So the second question outside of the infrastructure cost is how do we not do that? Can the pedestal or wall box be—wallbox not the brand, but box...electrical—can that thing be very low cost, low maintenance, zero maintenance, preferably? Whereas if it did get damaged, really nothing happens, other than I can easily replace it. And the answer is yes, because... Yeah, you're right. And once you become intelligent infrastructure and you sit safely back in the electrical room, the pedestals that have the cord sets on them become very dumb in air quotes. But the system is really smart.

David Roberts

Right. I'm curious what sorts of things having this kind of central intelligence, controlling multiple EV chargers can do. We mentioned it's going to prevent, whatever, 700 cars from charging at once. That's the kind of baseline it's going to prevent so much power from running through the system that it fries the grid it's on. But what else can you do with that sort of central computer control?

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, so I would say there's a ton, but the highest value ones are going to be certainly in energy management that we've been talking about here that relates more to than just to saying, hey, prevent 700 cars from charging at the same time. It says, hey, you know what, let 700 cars actually charge at the same time, but let's intelligently distribute so that they can all get a charge and not cause major problems and major electrical bills. So that's one, I mean, I would say the other one is it is extremely easy to create a campus environment as well with the system. It kind of relates to what we spoke of earlier. Like the network connectivity is completely different from any other system, as in like it's really easy to do. So it's very easy from a campus wide perspective to say, hey, how do I connect this campus of chargers to a single system, single pane of glass that also does energy management, that also saves on electric bills, things like that. So things become very easy through that network piece.

There is another element to it that says, well, kind of goes off. The programmable breaker to some degree is when you buy an EV charger today. This is another pain point. Again, at scale, it can sometimes also be a pain point, not at scale, but when you buy one today, it's fixed. In other words, level two charging, which is most of the charging, goes all the way up to 80 amps. All right, so just take that as a number. Well, if you buy a charger, it's going to come in several different flavors. You can get a 24 amp charger, you can get a 32 amp charger, a 40 amp, a 48 amp, and then on rare occasion an 80 amp because 80 amps kind of hard to do for various reasons. There's just less of those.

But nonetheless, what you buy is what you buy and you're stuck with that. So if you buy a 32 amp charger, which is most of them on the market, that's it. You're not going to get 48 amp, you know, that a Tesla needs. You're not going to get 80 amp. That a Ford f 150 needs. You got 32. So you're probably picking up this a little bit, that with a programmable breaker now, on the other hand, what I can do is we can just simply go the full range of charging through the same product.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

You're buying a full level two now, regardless. You just tell it what it, again, tell it what it is. And that can happen real time. You know, I could start off as 48 amp charger and then move up to an 80 amp charger, you know, a couple of years from now as more demand picks up for adm charging with the same infrastructure with no stranded assets. And that's absolutely critical. So let's say that's another one.

David Roberts

So I got the intelligence is in the circuit board and they've got these sort of dumb chargers out in the parking lot. So like a bolt could pull up and charge at that charger and the circuit board knows the right amperage level. And then an F-150 could pull up to the same charger and get more charge because the circuit breaker knows.

Ryan Kennedy

Correct. But it's not enough to say, because you were mentioning network a minute ago. It's not enough to say, well, a programmable breaker alone solves that. It solves a major chunk of it, which says, well, I can now program my system to be 80 amp, not 48, yes. But there's another element to it which says, well, to do that, then again, think of that example of 700 chargers. Now, if I, if I boost, say, these chargers over here to 80 amp, say, call it 50 of them, right?

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

Now, the entire system has to communicate amongst itself because, well, they sit on the same utility to say, well, oh, those have 80 amp now. So we need to see how we can spread the rest of them intelligently, so these other folks get a charge while these get an 80 amp charge. So it's still a system level network event. Right. And we make that easy and out of the box effectively. Whereas it becomes extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, the way things have been done today.

David Roberts

Right. Because I guess if you're buying multiple ones today, you're just sort of bricolaging them together piece by piece.

Ryan Kennedy

Correct.

David Roberts

Seems a lot more like people are being asked to kind of wing it a little bit. And as I'm sure you know, as having interacted with customers, if I'm just like an owner of a hotel or whatever, I don't want to know, you know what I mean? I don't want to have to think about this much. I just want to plug something in and have it work. There's not going to be a lot of electrical systems management from these customers.

Ryan Kennedy

You are absolutely right. And that brings us to probably, I would say, the core of how we're personally selling, but also what we're seeing the market in this space look for, which is EV charging is one of those unique animals you mentioned, hospitality, where it's unique in the sense that if you offer it and it doesn't work, the perception of your facility becomes different.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

If the lights out or the TV doesn't work in the hotel room or something, it causes nowhere near the impact that your EV charger not working does. There's various reasons we think that is. But anyway, so what's happening is and you're right, those hotels, especially hotels, don't want to think about this stuff. So being able to package it up in a way that is highly effective out of the box and by the way, extraordinarily reliable. Because we're a breaker now, we're falling to a completely different standard. That becomes absolutely critical that you have a super reliable, super easy...I don't have to think about energy. I don't have to think about demand. I don't have to think about this stuff, from a hospitality, or multifamily, or fleet perspective...that becomes a very powerful thing. But it's a culmination of kind of all the is stacked on top of one another. Smart breaker panel connected, dumb pedestal system level approach.

David Roberts

Right. And this is like if I'm the hotel owner, do I just plug and play and this thing runs itself forever...or is Atom involved, somehow, in monitoring and running? Are you involved in operations at all? Once you install these things, who takes over operations?

Ryan Kennedy

I'd like to say we have a singular way of selling, but it's such an early market still that we don't. We sell all the way down to just hardware. All the way up to full managed services. So we have a 24/7 network operation center within our facility that we monitor key customer assets that we have service agreements with, particularly in hotels. That's one of those sectors that ask for that frequently because the hotels don't...they want to equate EV charging rightfully so to WiFi. You don't think about the router. Yyou don't think about gigabit or whatever that is. It needs to just work. I can connect to it, and it works. That's it. That's all I care about, rightfully so.

David Roberts

And one other question about these EV control systems. Obviously, the first thing on everybody's mind is the sort of EV facing part of it, managing which vehicles are charging and how much at what time. But of course, if you have this intelligence and software you also could think about communicating with the grid. And so, I wonder how much, because once you are getting up to 700 whatever. I don't know why we picked that number out. 700?

Ryan Kennedy

It's actually a project we have up in New York.

David Roberts

Oh yeah. Well, you've got 700 vehicle charging stations and 700 vehicles charging, potentially. You've also got a fairly large dispatchable, at least somewhat controllable load, which seems to me could be quite helpful on some congested grids. So how big of a piece is the grid facing intelligence in these things? And I guess some of that depends on utilities and whether they're ready to do this kind of thing but I just wonder are you sniffing around in that space?

Ryan Kennedy

I would say the way we're approaching it is, to answer your question, your hunch is dead on. That is a major utility concern at scale is to be able to have some level of at least visibility if not some level of demand responsibility in those events. We're not starting there, really. We're starting to satisfy what customers need right now, like, what are the most important things for them in the sectors we're in. So we see that as an evolution and it is happening. We are engaged in multiple utilities, just to put that out there. But today it's not so easy to say okay, well let's control that.

What first needs to happen is customers need to start utilizing. The utilization picks up, that utilization picks up more. Then those discussions, the real, like, "what do we do about it" discussions will start happening with utilities we predict.

David Roberts

It's going to force the question. If you've got 700 vehicle loads coming on and off your grid I mean, you kind of really can't just ignore that.

Ryan Kennedy

That's true. But with the evolution of electric vehicles and the adoption rate, all 700 aren't going to be on today. I think that's the point is, like, as more and more vehicles come onto that system—in relatively short order the next couple of years—then things become more apparent. Right. Then things become more potentially problematic for the utility. And we do expect that there's an engagement with the utilities, at various levels, for some sort of a demand response tie in. We certainly see that, but we're not day one pitching that as part of—the product is capable, absolutely capable—it's just the connection rate from the vehicles to the chargers has to pick up more and more and more and then eventually that will begin discussions once it becomes problematic for the utility, but not before it becomes problematic, typically.

David Roberts

Yes, that sounds right. So you're out there now selling these systems, these EV charging systems to fleets and campuses. I'm sort of curious, who are the customers so far? What sectors were most eager for something like this to exist?

Ryan Kennedy

Well, they initially fleet, so think parcel pickup delivery fleet. That's where we kind of started off our sales, was there. Multifamily is a close second at this point because they have the same pain points. They both need to have lots of chargers and they both have pain points associated with, well, effectively becoming a gas station. Trying to minimize costs associated with that.

David Roberts

Right. Yeah. There's one other thing I forgot to mention when we were talking about this earlier, that since you mentioned multifamily, I'll just throw it in here. Another sort of interesting application of this is if you own condos or apartment buildings or something, you might want to have certain chargers dedicated to certain people. Or you might want to have certain chargers that are available only in certain times of day. Or you might want to have one charger that's shared between two people who live in your apartment building. And all of that is of course, you can do, if you have this central control system, you can do a lot of micro fiddling with the individual spaces.

Ryan Kennedy

Yes, already built in, super easy to do.

David Roberts

And so the EV charging space is a very obvious application of this. A place where some central control of multiple devices is most obviously needed, and the demand is rising very quickly and that whole industry or set of industries is in really kind of like it's a crazy time of ferment in and around that stuff... But as we emphasized early on, as I emphasized when I wrote about this back in 2019, really there's no end to the possibilities here because the way I think about it is every single device on the grid is connected through a circuit breaker. And so if circuit breakers can become smart computing devices, then basically every device connected to the grid becomes smart or at least somewhat smart, without having to put all that programming and smarts and computing power into the appliance itself. You're putting the intelligence in the connection to the grid. I don't know, the more I think about this, the more it kind of blows my mind. That what you could do, eventually, if some substantial portion of the millions and millions and millions of circuit breakers in the country become smart. I don't know, it just seems to open up like the sky is the limit kind of thing. So I'm just curious, like, you're moving into the EV space for obvious reasons. It's hopping. There's a serious demand for precisely this sort of thing. But do you have plans?

Like what's next after that? Because I could just think of a million different...

Ryan Kennedy

We do, as I think, hopefully, the listeners have picked up and I think through our conversation here, it's probably become apparent that EV charging for us is viewed as an application of the breaker, but not as the thing.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

Much like many other things are. That will be scaling in the near future, in a way that is unique, in a way that is very easy and primarily of which becomes truly universal. So we are, you know, evolving product into a form factor that, you know, like we're universal today from a product standpoint. In other words, you can put us in any building, anywhere, it doesn't matter, same product, and we're capturing 90% of the breaker market doing that. But we're in our own panel. As we evolve, that will shift into a form factor that fits into most panels, at least in the US. And can be adapted for the European markets and add further ability into the product to effectively be able to tell it what it is.

So we see a future. That the breaker that you have to buy anyway, instead of going and buying a meter or a control device or EV charger or industrial control, whatever it is, you just tell the breaker you're that thing, and it does it. That's the world we see. Now at scale, at extreme scale, I always like to think in kind of polar extremes, extreme scale of that, because consumption defines the grid, not the other way around, is you effectively could have control of the entire grid.

David Roberts

Yes.

Ryan Kennedy

Also obsolete about 80% of the electrical products on the market at extreme scale.

David Roberts

That's the other thing I was thinking about is like all those things you're talking about building into the circuit breaker. Those are entire freestanding industries, like long standing industries. This is a huge amount of stuff, consolidation here, if nothing else.

Ryan Kennedy

Correct. I think what we're trying to do is—I hate to use the phone analogy, but it's very similar, but in a little different way—is that we are looking to electrically speaking, unify the applications and unify the customers into one platform. I mean, many other industries have done that most visibly, the phone. The applications and the phones get used by everyone. And we want the same to happen in the electrical space. That there's this massive gap...that there are more electrical products on the market than probably any other industry because just over time, as the industry has evolved, we've just made specific things for specific applications for specific customers.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

That's what EV chargers are. They don't have to be that way, right? The breakers have always been there, but it's not thought about much. So let's make that thing that actually does it since, well, it's part of the electrical system, right? You have to buy it anyway. It needs to be there. So let's make that the universal thing. And I think that's where you mentioned the investment. I think that's probably where Atom Power differentiated. Because if you were going to go make that kind of investment, the 100 million into, say, an EV charging company, the problem is it may not be a problem, but I mean, the way we look at it is, well, that's all that they do.

The product charges a car, you can't use it for this, you can't use it for that. That is it. That is what it's going to do. Whereas Atom Power, it's like it being an application of a universal device, means that, well, as we see this market over here take off, we apply to that market and we see this market over here, but we apply to that market. Why? Because all of them require breakers.

David Roberts

Right? So, like a facility with a central circuit board controlling multiple EV chargers, there's no reason that it couldn't plug other types of ICEs into that same circuit board, and it could coordinate all of them alongside the EV chargers, with the EV Chargers. There's nothing EV specific about it.

Ryan Kennedy

Exactly.

David Roberts

I'm thinking about scale here. One of the things I think people are starting to become familiar with are sort of smart panels at home...like this company, SPAN, has the smart panel...which is sort of doing in the home what you're talking about doing with EV chargers at big facilities, which is just controlling loads and balancing loads and timing things and all this kind of thing. So in a sense, a smart panel like this, in the home, would kind of make the home into its own little micro grid, right? This own little independently managed micro grid.

And I'm curious about scale. What does it look like as you scale bigger and bigger? Is it just stacking these little circuit breakers on top of one another to eternity?

Ryan Kennedy

That's actually a really good fundamental question, is that breakers cover a large swath of land when it comes to electrical space, right? They go all the way from, you know, technically ten amps in the US. All the way up to 5,000 amps.

David Roberts

What does a 5,000 amp circuit breaker look like? Is it..

Ryan Kennedy

A refrigerator, basically.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

But, but the point is, is like, you know, when you get into big distribution systems, you start off with a goliath utility and you finally work your way down to the small, what's called Brandt circuit breaker. That basically means last breaker in the system. That's where we play, is in that Brandt circuit breaker, meaning the last breaker in the system. And like I said, 90% of those are 100 amp and less. And so you capture that market, you effectively capture most of the grid, you know, at scale. So in other words, it's like saying 100 amp and less, 90% of your loads are on that, you know, and that's what we focus.

David Roberts

I mean, if you let your mind drift in sort of futuristic utopian direction because I think about this stuff a lot. It's like what sorts of things do you think could be unlocked? What sorts of things do you think could become possible? When it's not just, you have this occasional smart load here and smart load there, but suddenly the bulk, the majority of the loads on a grid are smart controllable. I'm just curious what you think sort of like the emergent big picture effects of that will be like what will intelligence do for the grid on kind of the macro scale?

Ryan Kennedy

I think as you scale out, especially at the extreme end, you can do some pretty granular things, like, neighborhoods, electrically, are talking to one another, and that becomes apparent where you can shed load without interrupting someone's life and save a substation or save another generator from having to come online. It kind of speaks to demand response, but in a different way that says it's not brute force, shut things off. Instead, let's all talk to one another and know that, hey, the conditions look like this. This home is unoccupied, likely because the electricity consumption is so low.

The imagination, there's no limit. This is the thing, again, because the consumption of electricity is what defines everything else...is once that becomes a unified platform and understandable ecosystem made of billions of devices, that becomes very powerful in ways that I don't think we've even thought about yet. But at a high level it means that now, electrically, you can speak to one another, and it's not like by home. It's not like my home is pulling 20 kilowatts, your home is pulling 15. That doesn't tell you anything. What does tell you things is the patterns of usage, of EV charging, of HVAC, of hot water, of lights.

There's a lot there that, at scale, gives you a ton of intelligence that you can do a ton of things with, that I think the sky is the limit.

David Roberts

Yeah. At the base level, you are ensuring that every bit of electricity that's generated is used efficiently.

Ryan Kennedy

Correct.

David Roberts

And that alone is going to just take a huge whack off. I feel like the demand for new power plants and new capacity, you're going to be able to avoid a ton of new generators and new, maybe even new high voltage lines just by using the electricity you've got.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah. You just hit the core of the company, our company's thesis. This is actually what we were founded on...which was in the future, and we started in 2014, there was going to be this probably once-in-a-century event of transferring a lot of energy—think of that, not electrically, just pure energy onto the grid.

David Roberts

Yeah.

Ryan Kennedy

So that's happened. It's certainly happening now. I think we call that the energy transition now...But we had this thesis in 2014 where we said, well, you basically have like three options there, because the grid can't sustain that level of what we were predicting what's going to be transferred on the grid, primarily by vehicles. You have kind of three options. You either create more generation, somehow, even though we're reducing generation through baseload like coal and natural gas, rightfully so. You either do that, which is going to be really hard to do, or you have large scale energy storage combined with solar, which we have one of those, not both, solar, not so much energy storage, or you have large scale demand response. But the way to do that is through a universal method, not, not a disaggregated, like, you know, thermostat adjustment or smart EV charger here, but not there thing. It has to happen at a macro level scale, at the infrastructure level. So this is fundamentally why we actually started down this path, is sort of seeing that need in the market in the future. And this was 2014.

David Roberts

This comes up over and over again. You talk about transferring the heating load in the frigid Northeastern part of the country to electricity. That's A) a huge load, and B) the timing of that load is very different than the timing of the load it's adding onto. And that's just, you either meet that with brute force by building a shitload of new generators and power lines and everything else, or you just got to get much much much smarter about how you use the power you've got.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah. And the low hanging fruit, at least conceptually, is that you can be a lot smarter. But it's hard to actually execute on that without a universal platform that fits all industries—which at the end of the day, because again, everything's fed from a circuit breaker—that needs to be the thing that is innovated on, not a new appliance. But it's really hard to do that, super hard to do. I could go into why breakers are hard to actually innovate on, but nonetheless, it is the hardest path to pick.

David Roberts

But you're there for a big chunk of applications and can see, at least in the future, a form factor small enough to go into residential boxes. Right.

Ryan Kennedy

Yes.

David Roberts

And once it's in the box, it's programmable, which means it's not the same thing. It can be, like you keep saying, it can be a bunch of different—once it's in the box—it could be whatever we need it to be as needs evolve. This makes such sense to me. Like I remember when I first encountered it back in 2019, I was like, yeah. If you have one kind of device that is required for every single electric load, then why not make that the device that's smart, instead of creating new smart devices for every different kind of load. Why not just make the one lego building block, that's the whole grid, make that smart and then you've got all your smart devices in one? Seemed sort of like a smack your head obvious kind of thing to me. So why are you still the only one with a certified digital circuit breaker? Like I would think other people would be moving in this direction sooner or later.

Ryan Kennedy

You know what's interesting is that, I will tell you this, we were not the first ones to come up with the idea of a salt tape breaker. The idea of that actually is quite old. Traced this back to the mid-80s, of a semiconductor based circuit breaker by some large companies. So two things. One, is, I think, the natural question after that would be well, like okay, well, "why didn't anybody do it?" So, I think, there was probably—let's start there. There's probably a couple of things. One, is that the circuit breaker space is an interesting one. It really is. And the reason is because it is a super old industry. That's basically dominated by four companies, across most of the planet, who have all been building breakers for over a century each. That's just kind of the nature of this industry. So by the way, worst pitch ever. Hey, we're going to build a new breaker, where four companies dominate the planet, and it's all hardware and life safety, side note. But anyway, the point is it's a unique industry in that sense. So I think probably there were some "The Innovator's Dilemma" there a little bit because once you establish a means and methods and that's how things are done, it's really hard as a large company to move away from that and disrupt your own business.

David Roberts

Yeah. And it seems like building tiny computers is very different than building tiny electromechanical devices.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah.

David Roberts

I don't really know very well, but it doesn't seem like a lot of transferable knowledge.

Ryan Kennedy

It's definitely a different field. Right? I mean, once you say hey, let's build a solid state breaker, you now get into the realm of power semiconductors and physics that don't haven't historically applied in traditional circuit breakers. So, there's a few things. I think one is there were some enabling technologies that evolved since the 80s like computing, especially, in sensing and speed and power semiconductors, certainly. But I think the other piece of that is a bit of "The Innovator's Dilemma" that says, well, if I'm a company who's making breakers, but I'm also a company who's making industrial controls, and I'm also a company who's now making EV chargers.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

It's so difficult, so difficult to say, well, why don't we just make that one device.

David Roberts

And cannibalize all our other product lines.

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah, look, rightfully so it's difficult. Because if you've been set up that way and your company evolved that way, I mean, they're full of smart people... It's a structural challenge, right, to go do that. So I think Atom Power came out would work in a way, and that we're all from the industry. Me, specifically, I was an electrician, so I kind of used to design buildings. So I would like to say I think Atom Power had a view of the world that was much more simple and holistic, that says, well, "why should products be defined by the application? Why can't the product define the application?" Which seemed just a natural question. But then we started from there. I think that there are since Atom Power, there are emerging, I would say, technologies within established companies, as well as some startups who are trying to do effectively what we're doing. My view on this, is we welcome it because, coming from the industry, we believe what we're doing is the right thing to do. We also know we can't service every single customer base on the planet.

David Roberts

It's millions and millions, as previously discussed. Well, I'm curious, if somebody, if another company makes a digital circuit breaker, do we know already that it will communicate with yours? Or does that remain to be hashed out? Like, is there a standards are there standards issues here?

Ryan Kennedy

Well, it depends what you mean. I mean, there's a UL standard now that basically Atom Power defined the path for and establish with UL.

David Roberts

But I meant more of the software kind of intercompatibility. I don't know anything about software, so I don't even know what the question is. But insofar as this is meant to be a universal system, is it going to all be operating on the same sort of software protocols?

Ryan Kennedy

Yeah. Yes and no. So we do see a world where from an application standpoint, in other words, if you're say a facility manager and you have one pane of glass you're looking at for software, interoperability between devices is going to be necessary.

David Roberts

Right.

Ryan Kennedy

So the way we structured our product is that the sort of core firmware and stuff is proprietary because, well, it's hard to open source that, because it's life safety, it's UL. It's like there's a lot of whizbang stuff that happens in the breaker to make it do what it does, but then the layer on top of that which says, well, okay, well, let's set this up as an EV charger, that layer of software, we're open protocol and API based, as well. So you could tie even today, you can tie an existing building management system into our software, for example, the way it should be for other manufacturers if they come to the market. We haven't seen you actually come to the market, yet, because, like I said, it's super hard to do this, and I think it takes so much time and energy. Atom Power is dedicated years to this, at this point. It's a hard thing to do.

David Roberts

Was there any sort of public policy assistance or is this all private investment, and are you making money now? I'm curious because a lot of industries, when you're going up against a super giant incumbent industry, you need help to cross those first few humps. Has this all been private money so far?

Ryan Kennedy

It has, yes.

David Roberts

And you're out selling things for profit now. You don't feel like you need any help.

Ryan Kennedy

Well, I mean.

David Roberts

Not like you're going to turn down help if...

Ryan Kennedy

We always welcome help, but in the form of investment, we're capitalized for quite some time at this point, and our goal is to not ever need to raise funds again. That's kind of... So we need to be... We are post revenue, not pre-revenue, but as a company, we have to get to a sustainable level of profitability, right? Because from an investor, in a markets perspective, the markets are very harsh right now on companies in the new energy space. There's many publicly traded companies, especially the ones that went this backroute, you can see this on right now, which is kind of a Goldilocks scenario because it's a high growth market, yet if you're not profitable, investors are punishing you on valuation, specifically. So we need to become a very profitable company in this space, but to sustain ourselves and to continue to grow products, organically, right, and not continue to raise money. That's what we're headed towards.

So my point is, it's really hard to make money in the energy space, as the markets have shown. So the best companies are going to be the ones who have a sustainable technology, but also a sustainable business model to where they can take the profits and continue innovating, to further advance and create solutions to the major pain points that are out there. I mean, this is our thesis. Like, we have to become a profitable company.

David Roberts

This is really fascinating to think about the sort of these lego blocks that are really kind of composing the entire grid—thinking about all of them getting smart is really just, for a sort of grid geek—really lets your mind spin off and all sorts of interesting directions. So, thanks, for taking the time and explaining this all to us, and good luck in your next steps.

Ryan Kennedy

David, thank you. I really appreciate the conversation today.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversation like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at Volts.wtf. Yes, that's Volts.wtf, so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much. And I'll see you next time.

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Volts

Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)