With a leadership change at its microgrid helm, what’s next for Schneider?

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Schneider Electric is one of the biggest and most influential players in the microgrid market. Mark Feasel, the person who guided the company’s rise in microgrids, departed the company last month, leaving people asking, “What’s next for Schneider?”

Jana Gerber

Jana Gerber, Schneider Electric’s North American microgrid president

The answer is Jana Gerber, who became president of the company’s North American microgrid operation on May 1.

Microgrid Knowledge had the opportunity to speak to Gerber last week and learn about her vision for microgrids and Schneider’s role in the arena.

A structural engineer, Gerber first came to Schneider more than two decades ago after it acquired a company where she was employed. She has since risen up the ranks through segments that serve markets closely intertwined with microgrids: buildings, health care and sustainability. 

In her career she’s focused on customer pain points, and she takes the helm at a time when the pain points for microgrid customers seem to be changing. While concerns about power outages still drive most US customers to install microgrids, Gerber sees a “shifting in prioritization.” Corporate sustainability goals and electrification are growing as motivators.

Sustainability 

Arcane just a few years ago, the acronym ESG (environmental, social and governance) is now common shorthand in corporate parlance to describe sustainability goals, which are being pursued by almost all large companies and many smaller ones. 

With their clean energy targets set, companies are now trying to figure out how to reach them.

Gerber sees Schneider’s microgrid segment working closely with its sustainability business to help companies do so. Schneider takes a “strategy and action” approach, she said. So it’s not just about “where we think you should go and why, but how you can get there as well.”

To reach their clean energy goals, businesses have two basic choices: purchase power from a renewable energy plant built elsewhere or install power systems, like microgrids, on their own premises.

“They can do it through off-site means — power purchase agreements (PPAs) —  or on-site means. Off-site PPAs are continuing to be a developing market, but right now, in the US, it’s a very costly approach at times. So, organizations are looking at how to do it more themselves in their own facilities,” Gerber said.

What’s the difference between the two?

“With costly PPAs, you get the sustainability, but you don’t get the resiliency,” she said.  In contrast, on-site energy offers “more control, ownership, and then you also get that resiliency, the RECs [renewable energy credits] and other elements as well.”

She points to Bimbo Bakeries USA, a large national bakery, as an example. Known for such products as Thomas’ English muffins, Arnold bread, and Sara Lee and Entenmann’s pastries, the company announced plans in March to install microgrids at six of its facilities, with the help of GreenStruxure, a Schneider subsidiary. Microgrids are a key part of Bimbo Bakeries’ goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Electrification

Then there is electrification, the move to transition vehicles and buildings away from using fossil fuel and toward electricity.

“We’re looking very closely at prosumers, electric vehicles (EVs) and electrification 4.0,” Gerber said.

Electrification 4.0 refers to the next phase of electricity’s rollout to the world. While the first 70 years focused on electrifying mature economies, the next phase, 4.0, describes the convergence of electricity with the digital world.

There is a lot of customer confusion, and, therefore, a lot of education to do when it comes to electrification. Companies and consumers tend to think of electric vehicles as just another form of equipment that gets plugged into an outlet — they are not considering how these new fleets can affect their energy supply and the grid.

Learn more about microgrids, sustainability and electrification from leading industry executives at Microgrid 2022: Microgrids as Climate Heroes, June 1-2 in Philadelphia.

“You can cause actual capacity constraints,” Gerber said. “Microgrids become a very good option in those spaces.”

Electrification also opens up new business models that companies are just beginning to think about. Gerber pointed to a recent Fast Company article that described a plan by Starbucks to create EV charging stations at its stores. The charging stations are meant for travelers stopping to fuel up themselves with coffee and their cars with electrons.

For Starbucks, the EV project creates a new way to attract and serve customers and will help it reach its sustainability target.

Such pairing of sustainability and electrification is on the rise, according to Gerber.

“We are absolutely seeing that and hearing that,” she said. “Our existing customers are saying, ‘Well, we worked with you on the sustainability side. What are you doing in the EV space that would help us?’”

Removing the fright

Both of these trends — sustainability goals and electrification — are driving companies to look at microgrids. But there is a problem. “Microgrids are a scary word to some customers,” Gerber said. They consider them to be a lot to tackle, a complex endeavor. Schneider is trying to show customers that they can be built in a modular fashion, starting with a basic system and gradually expanding it over time by adding additional energy resources and software and control technology. Marine Corps’ Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California, and Montgomery County, Maryland, offer examples of two Schneider projects that took this approach. 

“We talk a lot in our sustainability discussions about it being a journey. And I think microgrids are also a journey for our customers. Helping them take those first steps is going to be key over the next few years,” Gerber said.

Track news about microgrid players on Microgrid Knowledge.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. 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.

Comments

  1. ““With costly PPAs, you get the sustainability, but you don’t get the resiliency,” she said. In contrast, on-site energy offers “more control, ownership, and then you also get that resiliency, the RECs [renewable energy credits] and other elements as well.””

    This is probably the bottom line, large commercial, industrial and even cities and towns realize if you cut out the middleman you save money. Just one of the 72 hours invoked PSPS shutdowns created a loss in commerce in the area of around $700 million over those 72 hours. How many times can you do this without irreparable damage to your long-term business prospects? Folks are finding out if they load their roofs with solar PV panels, they can save maybe 30% on electricity as a grid tied system with a PPA. IF this same company gets the solar PV array and a smart ESS of around 25% generated energy storage, the company can have resilience for a time and also can use the smart algorithms in the ESS to clip TOU and emergency electricity rate charges saving another 20% on the monthly electric bill. The overall amortization of the solar PV and smart ESS microgrid is becoming more attractive as the nation as a whole, chases a mandate of decarbonization of the grid by 2035. For larger businesses it makes sense to have the ability to isolate from the grid for 6 to 8 hours during rolling blackouts and PSPS events. I understand some of the Indian Casinos helped the grid when in August, California endured rolling blackouts, while the Casinos had enough resiliency to isolate from the grid and take their load off the local grid for a few hours. This is starting to sound like Zn-alkali rechargeable batteries might be a low-cost option that has better characteristics than lead/acid energy storage with better results. Instead of an electrolyte that has probably KOH or even H2O one could exchange KSI and remediate the hydrogen liberation problem when the battery is charged or discharged.