Microgrid Development: Considering Power Generation Resources

In this week’s Industry Perspectives, Frank Wolak, Vice President Sales – Americas at FuelCell Energy, discusses microgrid development and the importance of selecting the right primary power generation resource.

microgrid development

Frank Wolak, Vice President Sales – Americas at FuelCell Energy

The US Department of Energy defines the microgrid as ”a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid…”

Within this definition equal weighting appears given to both loads and energy sources. While much emphasis in microgrid development is in the determination of site loads and the design features of the “grid,” the overall success of the microgrid often is determined by the development of the primary power resources. A microgrid may have several sources of generation ranging from on-site solar photovoltaics, energy storage or existing prime or back-up generators.  In the cases where no primary generation is in place the success of the power installation is key to the success of the microgrid.

FuelCell Energy (FCE) designs, manufactures, installs, operates and maintains multi-megawatt fuel cell plants at universities, hospitals, industrial facilities, municipalities, and for utility customers around the world.  Our plants are operating in the US, Asia and Europe and can be configured as a primary power source for microgrids. FCE can provide a complete project under a power purchase agreement (PPA) and has the capability to provide all engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) work associated with a project.

The overall success of the microgrid often is determined by the development of the primary power resources. Click To Tweet

The FCE SureSource 1500, 3000 and 4000 power plants produce 1.4 , 2.8 and 3.7 MW and can be operated either in an electric-only mode with an efficiency of up to 60 percent, or in a combined heat and power (CHP) mode, with overall efficiency exceeding 80 percent. Current FCE microgrid applications range in size from 1.4 MW to 7.4 MW.

The FCE fuel cell plants, listed below, are in operation where the generator size is significant in relation to the microgrid load:

  • University of Bridgeport, Bridgeport CT 1.4 MW
  • Riverside WWT, Riverside CA – 1.4 MW
  • University of California San Diego, San Diego CA 2.8 MW
  • Town of Woodbridge, Woodbridge CT – 2.5 MW
  • Pfizer Pharmaceutical Research, Groton CT 5.6 MW

In all cases our fuel cells were chosen for its clean power, reliability, quiet operation and efficiency. And while these attributes are fundamental to all of our plants, the microgrid plants were also new power resources, requiring new development, financing and design independent of the microgrid. In these applications, emphasis on the actions and planning for the generation resource was paramount to the success of the microgrid.

A new primary generation resource also introduces new requirements to the host site, especially where the power plant is required to provide a significant portion of the total load.

A new primary generation resource also introduces new requirements to the host site, especially where the power plant is required to provide a significant portion of the total load. A new primary generation resource will operate the majority of its commercial life in normal mode. Significant emphasis and experience must be applied to the development of a facility that must first do its job as a prime power plant, providing economic benefits and quality of service for the time when not in microgrid mode. While integration of loads, control features and engineering design drives the load side of the microgrid, economic and environmental factors often drive the generation side:

  • Ability to obtain environmental or operating permits
  • Requirements for long-term fuel source
  • Requirements of financiers or the PPA securing revenue
  • Applications and requirements for federal, state or local grant funding
  • Introduction of a power source to an operation where power was primarily provide by the utility

When the generation plant is relatively large compared to the microgrid, or when it is the primary source operating in parallel with the utility grid, the plant becomes the key interface with the electric utility, at the center of the sequencing from grid to microgrid and back to grid. Utility interconnection, microgrid control and reaction capability of the generator are important technical factors. If the power plant is owned by a party independent of the microgrid owner, the plant has to be developed to recognize the commercial aspects of a PPA or financing entities.

microgrid development

A new primary power resource can be the most involved commercial portion of the microgrid and microgrid development. Recognizing this, FCE has developed the internal skills and expertise to define power engineering design, operating and maintenance, microgrid program needs and the requirements of independent financing. All of these elements should be considered during microgrid development or a sub-optimal power resource will be in place and ill-suited for effective operation when the microgrid is called upon.

When considering the primary power resource for a microgrid, clearly define the commercial structure of the power plant and development requirements. Then select an entity that can assure the power plant will be an effective, efficient and economical resource for all operating modes.  And finally, relax just a bit that critical functions will be assured of power no matter the weather.

Frank Wolak is vice president at FuelCell Energy. 

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