Is the Low-Carbon Microgrid Next?

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Blue Lake Rancheria. Credit: Siemens

Microgrids are being built for resiliency, for reliability, for security and even for community. So maybe now it’s time to start advancing the low-carbon microgrid too?

If so, Siemens, Pacific Gas & Electric, and partners are ahead of the game with this week’s announcement of a low-carbon microgrid at Blue Lake Rancheria, a 100-acre Native American reservation in Northern California.

Microgrid advocates have done a good job letting the world know that the technology can keep the lights on during a central grid outage. But they often forget to mention another value of microgrids — the intelligent way they can organize their resources to achieve a particular end, such as generating reliable power with the lowest possible emissions.

The intelligence lies within the advanced microgrid controller, in this case Siemens SpectrumPower Microgrid Management System, which will help the installation reduce 150 tons of carbon per year.

Pat Wilkinson, head of Siemens Energy Automation, explained that the software can be configured to make decisions based on environmental impact.

In essence, the controller looks at the availability of solar or batteries, then will “maximize the contribution of those resources as opposed to one that is environmentally less favorable,” he said in an interview following announcement of the Humboldt, California microgrid on Monday.

So if it’s sunny, the microgrid might use the solar panels. If not, it might turn to the stored battery energy or whatever is the most optimal low-carbon mix. Diesel generators, in this configuration, would likely be the last choice.

“It can accommodate whatever resource mix you have available and incorporate, in the case of solar, weather forecast information as well as load forecasting, and build a dispatch model for the optimal combination,” Wilkinson said.

The microgrid includes a 0.5 MW solar photovoltaic system, 1 MWh of battery storage, a biomass fuel cell, and diesel generators already used on the reservation. The project constitutes the largest solar array in Humboldt County, California.

The low-carbon microgrid will cost $6.6 million to install. But the expense is largely offset by a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program. The remainder will be covered by the tribe and the partners.

The announcement of the new microgrid comes at a time of heightened awareness about the need for carbon dioxide reductions.

Just a few weeks ago the Obama administration finalized new rules that will limit carbon dioxide from existing power plants. States must come up with plans to reduce overall carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, key components of low-carbon microgrids — solar, storage and energy efficiency — are getting a special push by the White House.

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low-carbon microgrid

Siemens Microgrid Management Software Screen Shot

Blue Lake Rancheria is an appropriate showcase for a low-carbon microgrid because it was one of 16 U.S. communities designated as White House Climate Action Champions last year. These communities have made special effort to cut carbon pollution and improve resilience, so are receiving targeted federal assistance.

The federally recognized tribal government already has reduced energy use by 35 percent through a range of strategies, including using biodiesel to power public buses and aggressive energy efficiency measures.

The tribe has participated in demand response programs for a decade by using its existing diesel generators. The microgrid will now allow the reservation to do so with solar and batteries, according to Jana Ganion, energy director for the Rancheria.

The microgrid will power the entire 100-acre reservation including government offices, a casino, hotel and Red Cross Safety Shelter

The SP MGMS software is “operator-free” and does not require traditional 24-7 monitoring. The solution is built on a utility grade SCADA platform giving it the power to handle any microgrid application and ensure interoperability with other load control systems, according to Siemens.

The microgrid is scheduled to be installed and operating by fall 2016. In addition to Siemens, PG&E and Blue Lake Rancheria, other project partners include Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University, the California Energy Commission, and Colburn Electric.

low-carbon microgrid

Courtesy of Siemens

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three 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.


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