Microgrids and Utilities: Friend or Foe?

‘Microgrids and Utilities’ is the latest excerpt from our Think Microgrid guide.

microgrids and utilitiesMicrogrids face the same kind of risk as other energy projects – permitting issues, market penetration, financing, and fuel supply management. But one of the greatest and most talked about risks for a microgrid involves its relationship with the local utility.

The relationship is still largely undefined. The central question is: Will microgrids compete with local utilities or complement them?

Many advanced microgrid advocates emphasize that the microgrid is a counterpart to the local grid, not a detractor.

Still, there are potential friction points between utilities and privately developed microgrids, the same issues that tend to arise between utilities and other forms of distributed energy, such as interconnection standards, standby rates or submetering rules.

Connecting

Utilities have both financial and technical concerns about how microgrids will influence their business model and the functioning of the central grid.

On the technical side, utilities worry that microgrids may harm the reliability of the larger grid through faulty interconnection, tripping or failing to island or re-connect correctly. Meanwhile, private microgrid operators offer another perspective. Some say they find it difficult, from a technical perspective, to deal with the utility’s legacy system and to navigate interconnection procedures.

microgrids and utilities

Credit: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)

On the financial side, utilities express concern about the cost to provide back-up power for microgrids, especially if they proliferate. (It also should be noted that some utilities have embraced microgrids and either have developed them or plan to.)

But much of the discussion centers around the ‘utility death spiral,’ the idea that customers will flee the system for distributed generation and microgrids in great numbers, leaving the utility with a rate base too limited to fund needed infrastructure without dramatic rate increases – which will in turn cause further customer flight.

Franchise Rights

One of the thorniest issues for microgrids involves utility franchise rules. In many locations, a microgrid cannot string wires across a public street to serve customers; doing so infringes on the local utility’s franchise rights.

In March 2013 Public Utilities Fortnightly article, “Peaceful Co-Existence,” Sara Brown and Paul McCary, point out that utility franchise laws vary widely throughout the United States. So ease of microgrid development varies widely too. The authors use South Carolina and Connecticut as examples of two extremes. In South Carolina, the state has jurisdiction over something as basic as the sale of power from rooftop solar panels to a host. In contrast, Connecticut allows certain microgrids to sell across power across public streets.

A simple microgrid, such as one serving a college campus with no intervening public streets, could likely operate even in South Carolina without concern about franchise rules, say the authors. However, for more complex microgrids – those with multiple end users on multiple pieces of property with public streets – the franchise issue arises. Microgrids aren’t necessarily precluded in states with narrow franchise rules. But the developers depend on the goodwill of the regulators and local utility, or the utility’s willingness to form a financial partnership or agreement with the microgrid, say the authors.

Competitive Risk

The competitive playing field also raises questions of risk – especially in restructured states. Who should be allowed to develop microgrids?  Utilities typically cannot own or develop power plants in restructured states. Should they also be prohibited from microgrid development? Or might the state grant exceptions, as some have, in a limited fashion for utility development and ownership of renewable energy projects?

And if utilities do own microgrids, should they be allowed to charge a premium rate, given the high quality of the power? For example, if a utility builds a microgrid to supply quality power to a newly arrived data center, should there be a special tariff applied? Should utilities or grid operators create some form of locational pricing to attract microgrids to areas of the grid where they are needed, such as points of congestion?

And finally, how do we calculate and recognize the environmental value of a microgrid?

Environment Northeast points out in a filing before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities that the benefit/cost analysis for any grid modernization must consider the value of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This issue is important to microgrids because many incorporate CHP, which the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy named as one of four key efficiency strategies to reduce greenhouse gases in its April 2014 study, “Change Is in the Air: How States Can Harness Energy Efficiency to Strengthen the Economy and Reduce Pollution.”  These strategies are particularly important in light of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rulemaking on carbon limits for existing power plants.

Effective state regulation can help utilities and microgrids navigate many of these risks. We will describe key state activities that encourage microgrids in the next article of our Think Microgrid series. 

Come back next week for a new article in this series, or immediately download the full report,  free of charge: Think Microgrid: A Discussion Guide for Policymakers, Regulators and End Users, courtesy of the report’s underwriters: the International District Energy Association, Schneider Electric and Microgrid Knowledge.

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. Daya Senanayake says:

    RAISES THE KEY ISSUES IN BOLD AND SIMPLE WAY. Will the utilities go the way of the “Horse and Buggy”? They will fight hard to survive.

  2. Gary Dishman says:

    Very informative Elisa! I think most utilities see microgrids as foes, both technically and financially.

    Power companies have spent years and a great amount of resources fine-tuning distribution systems for optimum performance. From a technical standpoint alone, they’re not going to permit a smorgasbord of power factor and connectivity problems to be dumped back into their grid without strict controls in place. Those controls will add to the already cost prohibitive line for microgrids.

    Of course, the most important aspect for utilities would be the loss of energy sales (whatever % load it may be). Expenditures for long term build-outs and upgrades have already been made in many cases and were based on those predictions. So, I would not look for much cooperation, even in financial partnerships that would still compromise their investments in the grid.

    Probably the best thing that will come from this idea for the majority of us (in the U.S.), in the near future anyway, is that hopefully utilities will attempt to hold rates low enough to prevent government intervention and the resulting micro grid-friendly franchises you mention. But, in the locations where utilities have already crossed that line, they have indeed provided the testing grounds that will demonstrate how well the two work together. The outcome there will determine the speed of green wave infiltration, not just the desire of microgrid enthusiasts to do so. But, having said that, many of us did not think healthcare would be turned upside-down either.

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