Energy for the People: Microgrids and the Democratization of Energy

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Lance Haines, chief technology officer – Microgrids, at Schneider Electric speaks on microgrids and modernizing the grid — and how the two are intrinsically connected. 

microgrids

Microgrids enhance the reliability and cost-effectiveness of electric power for communities, organizations and businesses. (Photo: Shutterstock/ greenaperture)

The US has made significant efforts towards modernizing its electrical grid, yet the existing disparity in power quality and electricity savings achieved among communities and individual consumers demonstrates we still have ways to go. When microgrids were first introduced, they offered a viable technology solution to help consumers upgrade their energy infrastructure. With their ability to integrate cleaner resources into our power mix, mitigate costs and increase reliability, microgrids transformed the way we consumed our electricity.

Although microgrids have been around for quite some time, it wasn’t until recent years that we saw adoption quickly spread among municipalities, large commercial buildings, campuses and critical facilities. As we experienced first-hand the resilience and sustainability benefits microgrids offer, especially in the face of severe weather and prolonged blackouts, the more cities and businesses considered the technology as part of their energy infrastructure strategy.

Fast forward to today, technological advancements and the maturation of innovative business models, such as Energy-as-a-Service (EaaS), have further enabled the growth of microgrids. As a model that presented a way to invest in microgrids with little to no upfront capital expense and minimal risk, EaaS was the solution for addressing the biggest financial barrier to deployment and a key driver to the uptick in microgrid adoption.

Microgrids are a viable solution for all organizations seeking to gain control over their energy costs, advance sustainability, and increase resilience, and it’s up to the industry as a whole to help make them accessible to everyone.

Still, the primary customer for microgrids widely remains municipal, district, institutional, commercial campus and large buildings. While we’ve experienced many technological breakthroughs in the last decade to reach more advanced and smarter microgrids, it’ll be the ongoing economic breakthroughs that will enable us to reach mass adoption and transform the power grid as we know it.

Abstracting the Complexity to Broaden the Pool of Users

Facilities of all sizes face similar issues around energy resilience, infrastructure modernization, long-term stable energy cost, and third-party ownership, operation, maintenance and financing. While EaaS solved many industry challenges, concerns around cost and complexity remain among many small and midsize buildings.

Microgrids vary dramatically in both size and functionality, creating a wide cost variance. At the same time, technology providers are turning their focus to developing simplified microgrid technology that can further drive down cost, risk and complexity. Many modern microgrid controls, for instance, have abstracted their complexity to the cloud. By managing data in the cloud, the integration of distributed energy resources (DER) is simplified and microgrid operators can monitor, forecast, and automatically optimize the operation of onsite resources using real-time data and predictive machine learning algorithms.

Additionally, pre-packaged microgrid solutions are quickly making their way into the market to further help simplify the deployment and management of microgrids. As opposed to designing and building a system from the ground up on a site, factories are now taking the responsibility of creating mass produced solutions that can be quickly and easily deployed by customers of similar size and with comparable needs. By abstracting the complexity to the factory, customers can reduce both risk and cost, while maintaining uptime by shortening the amount of time to deployment.

Schneider Electric, for example, offers packages within their Energy Control Center as a pre-configured, preprogrammed and pretested solution. The Energy Control Center is a modular onsite power control center that brings together hardware, software, advanced controls and electrical distribution to operate and optimize multiple DER with a single interconnection. With a scalable design, facilities also have the option to expand and integrate their use of new DER after installation.

As we look toward 2021 and beyond, this trend will develop even further. We can expect to see solutions expand and technology developers focus on designing systems that require less engineering. As microgrids get less bespoke, we’ll see more modular solutions for communities, regions, and overall smaller facilities versus crafted for individual customers. Again, this makes microgrids affordable and accessible, allowing for more energy consumers to enjoy their benefits.

Microgrids are a viable solution for all organizations seeking to gain control over their energy costs, advance sustainability, and increase resilience, and it’s up to the industry as a whole to help make them accessible to everyone. Simultaneously, small to medium sized facilities that are considering a microgrid should start by defining their current energy costs and identifying their energy goals and how they align with their sustainability targets. In many cases they will find that the cost of not having a microgrid can have a greater impact on their bottom line when considering the impact of growing environmental and economic factors, such as the rise of prolonged power outages and the cost of downtime.

Lance Haines is chief technology officer – microgrids, at Schneider Electric.

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Comments

  1. “Simultaneously, small to medium sized facilities that are considering a microgrid should start by defining their current energy costs and identifying their energy goals and how they align with their sustainability targets. In many cases they will find that the cost of not having a microgrid can have a greater impact on their bottom line when considering the impact of growing environmental and economic factors, such as the rise of prolonged power outages and the cost of downtime.”

    I believe it was last year, when PG&E invoked a 72 hour PSPS. Some business and economics professor at Berkley said this PSPS cost about $750 million dollars lost to the economy. Yes, it is very important to NOT have wildfires that destroy billions of dollars of infrastructure, it is also important to NOT destroy the economy by using the PSPS and interrupting the flow of commerce either.

    • So, would this be another way of looking at this:
      Not cutting the trees that threaten to cause fires from contact with the powerlines cost “$750 million dollars lost to the economy”. Are treehuggers the cause of this financial loss ?

    • Ken: I would say there’s plenty of guilt to go around. IF you dig deep enough, there have been dilatory actions taken on old infrastructure used by PG&E that was installed in the 1920’s. It appears for decades PG&E has put off grid hardening and O&M in these remote places, because it cuts into the dividends. A lot of the land that burned is Federal land and pressure from groups like the Sierra Club have fought against logging or brush removal from over grown areas of public lands. The BLM itself is fairly stringent as to what can be cleared and what cannot be cleared. If you go down to the county or local utility landscaping ordinances, you will find another “layer” of non-conformance between landscape and fire codes that have defensible space specifications in place. Hugging the tree is not necessarily the problem, having to fight with more than one agency to protect your home when a tree that is 2 feet from your home and basically hangs over your roof, cannot be cut down due to some “beautification” or historical growth protection ordinance of 50 years ago.

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