As It Plans World’s Biggest Virtual Power Plant, OhmConnect Warns of Market Flaws in California

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OhmConnect, partnering with Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, plans a 550-MW virtual power plant (VPP), Resi-Station, created by pooling and controlling homeowners’ devices and microgrids to provide clean power for California via aggregated flexible demand.

virtual power plant

By Simone Hogan/Shutterstock.com

Said to be the biggest project of its kind in the world, Resi-Station will help meet the needs of California’s stressed grid, said Cisco DeVries, CEO, OhmConnect.

“We saw this threat in August and September to the grid. What OhmConnect is doing is fundamental to our success. This is the cheapest, cleanest way to support grid reliability,” said David Hochschild, director of the California Energy Commission (CEC), which gave OhmConnect a $4 million grant in 2016 to support its work. He spoke during a press conference.

However, to help provide California and other states with much-needed clean flexible demand and VPPs, regulations need to change, said DeVries. California needs 10 to 15 GW of flexible demand to meet the needs of the grid in coming years, he said.

In August, during a heat wave, OhmConnect helped meet demand for electricity from the strained grid by controlling the smart devices, microgrids and appliances of 150,000 residential customers, providing 1 GWh for the grid, the equivalent of taking 600,000 homes off the grid. It paid $1 million to its homeowner customers.

Google parent in the mix

Resi-Station will be supported in part with funding from Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), which is backed by Google’s parent Alphabet and its Sidewalk Labs, along with the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.  SIP, which focuses on pioneering efficient infrastructure, made a $20 million investment in OhmConnect plus a commitment of $80 million to finance Resi-Station. The $80 million will help OhmConnect recruit new customers and pay for equipment and devices installed in their homes.

Some of the $80 million may be used to install home microgrids, which allow OhmConnect to provide larger amounts of flexible load from each home.

“We can pay for some of the cost of microgrids as long as we can use them,” said DeVries. Right now, the company has about 100 microgrids in customers’ homes.

“Next year, we will investigate how we can support the microgrid industry. Microgrids will be a critical part of the grid of the future, and we want to be in front of supporting that,” he said.

California needs flexible demand

“I ultimately think California needs many gigawatts of this type of aggregated flexible demand,” said DeVries. To achieve that scale will require adjustments in regulations.

The existing California rules and regulations are a “hodge podge” that will help the company get Resi-Station online. But much more is needed. Existing regulations and rules were designed for fossil fuels; regulators and stakeholders need to re-think how to regulate and support the distributed grid of the future and take into account the advantages and disadvantages of distributed energy resources (DER), DeVries said.

For example, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) now caps at 8% the amount of flexible demand that can be included in utility resource adequacy plans. “Not only does the 8% need to be revisited. The way they add up to the 8% is wrong,” said DeVries.

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No payment to microgrids for keeping the lights on

California’s summer heatwave and shortages highlighted some of the problems with incentives for flexible load, he added. On August 14 — when there were two hours of rolling blackouts in response to the hottest temperatures on record worldwide — OhmConnect provided about 200 MWh of flexible load, paying its customers that allow the company to control their appliances, microgrids and devices. But OhmConnect didn’t make money by supplying that badly needed resource.

“I would have been economically better off if I had not dispatched my users,” said DeVries. “Issues in the market didn’t work right. That should not be the case. It should be the day when everyone shows up.” It’s unclear exactly why the system didn’t provide enough incentives to attract more flexible load, he added.

OhmConnect was happy to help the state through a major crisis, but can’t regularly lose money as a result of the market not working properly.

Also, in September, after being asked by a state official to provide load, the company lost $100,000 to $200,000 after paying its customers. OhmConnect was happy to help the state through a major crisis, but can’t regularly lose money as a result of the market not working properly.

“We’re working with the state to fix problems like that so we and our customers are aligned, and we can provide the most when the grid is most in need — and get paid for it,” said DeVries.

Another challenge to getting more flexible load online involves measurement and verification. There is no agreed-upon or universal way for states to determine what the expected energy use would have been without the company’s intervention.

“Depending on which agency we’re dealing with, there are five different ways that they count how our energy reduction is measured. And they change those all the time,” said DeVries. In order to create a long-term investment in flexible load, it’s important to know how to count the megawatts. This affects what the consumers are paid as well as the types of devices that are controlled.

OhmConnect

Resi-Station image courtesy OhmConnect

 

Outside of California, DeVries sees many opportunities to expand the program.

While the company is working in California’s deregulated wholesale market right now, it doesn’t need a deregulated market to implement its program. One option is to provide the service to utilities. For example, the company has partnered with Origin Energy in Australia to roll out the program as a service.

One challenge, however, is that many utilities don’t want to hand over to OhmConnect retail control of the program.

Putting money in pockets of low income households

An advantage of the program is its ability to put money in the pockets of low-income households. In fact, 40% of OhmConnect’s customers are low and moderate income. They can earn $200 or so annually by participating in the program, said DeVries.

Right now, 16,000 homeowners in Alameda County take part in OhmConnect, said Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland, during the press conference.

One of the most important benefits of the OhmConnect program is its ability to engage utility customers and allow them to feel as if they can do something to respond to climate change, said Schaaf.

“You are giving every individual the opportunity to contribute at the community level to save the grid, the planet and their pocketbook,” she said. In the Bay area, many people want to do their part to fight climate change. “OhmConnect is empowering residents to not just enjoy those savings, but to feel that power of agency, that you, too, can contribute to this global challenge.”

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Comments

  1. peter donalek says:

    can an existing hydro generation project with floating solar panels on its reservoir be a Micro grid?

  2. Don’t know if it’s true or not, but some comments on OhmConnect is something like turning off the home’s circuit breaker main. Yeah, you can save electricity demand on an over stressed grid. When the “power shedding” event passes and appliances start to come back online, it could be almost like a black start event on the grid. This kind of shed, surge operation will only work so well and eventually the grid is going to have to deal with non hardened infrastructure and power constrictions along the grid feeders sooner than later.

    “The virtual power plant aggregates homeowners’ appliances such as smart water heaters and smart thermostats and offers these resources to CAISO.”

    This looks like a TOU power shedding program, such programs have been in place for over 20 years. SCE in California had such programs in place that were shutting down air conditioning compressors for a few hours at a time. In hot dry Southern California a lot of early adopters dropped out of the program after a few experiences with 110 to 120 degree Fahrenheit days the air conditioning cycled off during the heat soak. Folks began to say, I’ll pay the extra, I (need) the air conditioning. From some of the comments on the black out, it seems like a lot of entities with micro-grids islanded taking their load off of the grid entirely. Under the SGIF program in California, folks with large solar PV arrays and large ESS capacity could do the same, Island for several hours if ESS manufacturers start offering 56kWh to around 188kWh of energy storage capacity. Allowing off peak arbitrage could also help store energy at off peak and call back for generation just before the “duck curve” in the morning and just after the solar PV peak generation part of the day ends at the 4PM to 9PM TOU portion of the day.

  3. nice topic

Trackbacks

  1. […] This article warns of some serious flaws in California’s microgrid rules.   This article discusses the recent rulings at the CPUC, indicating the concerns people have.   This article provides a contrasting story on what one utility elsewhere is doing to advance microgrids. […]

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