Silver Buckshot and Critical Loads: Microgrid Perspectives at RE+

Sept. 15, 2023
For many touting the localized and decarbonizing impact of DERs and microgrids, the key focus coalesced around direct current as the means of delivery.

LAS VEGAS–The scale of RE+ which happened this week at the Venetian Hotel and Conference Center was off the charts. Truly Vegas in the best of ways, baby.

Nearly 40,000 energy industry professionals amassed here to highlight the best of past unions in the marriage of solar power and battery storage. And yet so much more, too, with renewable startups talking alongside long-time original equipment manufacturers, distributed energy true believers connecting with utilities and, occasionally, a true all-of-the-above vibe echoing across the hotel conference rooms.

“There’s not a silver bullet” to solving the challenges of merging power sustainability and resiliency,” Dema Tzamaras, senior manager of distributed energy resources at the non-profit Center for Sustainable Energy, said in one of the many RE+ sessions focused around microgrids.

“It needs to be silver buckshot.”

Boom. If the distributed energy, microgrid and virtual power plant (VPP) themes emerging at one of the industry’s biggest events wasn’t proof enough, the commitment of multiple sectors of the economy to decarbonize rang loud and clear. To pull the trigger on a net-zero shot heard around the world, it’s going to take an army of not just clean energy believers, but commercial, industrial and utility insiders.

Direct current may be the future

Time is of the essence, Lon Huber, who oversees rate design issues for North Carolina-based utility Duke Energy, pointed out. The changing landscape of energy load is rushing at Duke just like it is at every utility out there. Massive amounts of connected devices are being added, electric vehicles are on the rise, newer and more consumptive data centers are being built — all aimed at an aging framework of distribution systems and transformers.

“You can’t VPP yourself out of that situation,” Huber acknowledged in one of the RE+ master speaker sessions with Jigar Shah, who heads up the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, which is responsible for billions in financing for decarbonization projects nationwide. Those presumptive projects range from renewable energy resources to battery storage, hydrogen, energy efficiency and community solar.

Microgrids are a big part of that capital plan. The event’s intellectual and engineering talent aimed squarely at lessons learned and insights for the future. Bucking more than a century of grid-scale history going back to Thomas Edison vs. George Westinghouse, some of today’s energy transition leaders are preparing for a refocus on direct current (DC) as the pre-eminent electron delivery mechanism in a net- zero trend line.

“DC is the future,” said Gary Oppedahl, vice president of emerging technology at Block Energy, a distributed energy resource (DER), front-of-the-meter platform already connecting residential solar and storage in Florida and, soon, Maryland.

Block Energy’s wholly contained box of battery capacity and communication technologies ran the live microgrid that directly provided the power to the Grid Edge Theater on the RE+ exhibition floor. The microgrid was a collaboration of many partners, which all of these microgrid projects will need.

An earlier microgrid at Santa Rosa Junior College in California was able to successfully circumnavigate the frustrating interconnection queue to make it from filing to commissioning in little more than a year. SRJC’s microgrid is a solar-storage combo that was built in response to the conflagration of California wildfires and the responding utility public safety power shutoffs mandated in recent years.

The school communicated intently with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) from the start to the start up.

“It’s good to work with the utility early and often,” Tzamaras, of the Center for Sustainable Energy, said. “Everybody really needs to be involved and engaged for these projects to be successful.”

Utility-scale challenges

These are tough times for utilities. They are facing the aforementioned expansion of electrification demand, along with stiff resistance to any power plant expansions involving gas-fired or nuclear capacity.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for utilities,” said Jana Gerber, president of the North American microgrid sector at Schneider Electric. “They are in a challenging position.”

Yet hope is on the horizon. PG&E has worked with partners on numerous microgrids in northern California; Tampa Electric has collaborated with Block Energy on residential connected DERs; and both Duke and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas are separately exploring VPP aggregation as a sort of reverse microgrid to aid in grid stability.

For many touting the localized and decarbonizing impact of DERs and microgrids, the key focus coalesced around direct current as the means of delivery.

“Why DC microgrids? We live in a DC world with an AC (alternating current) infrastructure,” noted Dusan Brhlik, co-founder and CEO of Direct Energy Partners, which helped develop and complete a microgrid project for the federal General Services Administration.

“DC is how you do it. It’s the most efficient way to do things,” Brhlik added.

Microgrid partners also need to operate with an attitude of multi-vendor openness so they are not hand-tied by sudden changes in the supply chain realities. They must also utilize technologies such as digital twins to anticipate and analyze cost-benefit and operational challenges.

Remember load is the No. 1 priority

And, perhaps most of all, attendees are encouraged to stop thinking so much about microgrids from a power generation bias and focusing on identifying and prioritizing the critical load for the project.

Sometimes it’s something as simple as the lighting at a site that does it. Customers “don’t care about generation resources,” Brhlik pointed out. “They care whether the lighting is going off or on – It’s the perfect load.”

For Santa Rosa Junior College, during the height of the pandemic, the key load was a building that housed COVID-19 vaccines, which need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures to remain active and useful for combating the deadly virus.

“It’s important to highlight the critical load,” Tzamaras said. “Sometimes there have to be trade-offs and critical understanding of what needs to be on.”

What happened at RE+ won’t stay in Vegas, as the lessons learned and predictions get shared around the world. That’s as direct and critical as it can get.

RE+ is a joint conference by the Smart Electric Power Alliance and the Solar Energy Industries Association. 

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About the Author

Rod Walton, Managing Editor | Managing Editor

For Microgrid Knowledge editorial inquiries, please contact Managing Editor Rod Walton at [email protected].

I’ve spent the last 15 years covering the energy industry as a newspaper and trade journalist. I was an energy writer and business editor at the Tulsa World before moving to business-to-business media at PennWell Publishing, which later became Clarion Events, where I covered the electric power industry. I joined Endeavor Business Media in November 2021 to help launch EnergyTech, one of the company’s newest media brands. I joined Microgrid Knowledge in July 2023. 

I earned my Bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. My career stops include the Moore American, Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, Wagoner Tribune and Tulsa World, all in Oklahoma . I have been married to Laura for the past 33-plus years and we have four children and one adorable granddaughter. We want the energy transition to make their lives better in the future. 

Microgrid Knowledge and EnergyTech are focused on the mission critical and large-scale energy users and their sustainability and resiliency goals. These include the commercial and industrial sectors, as well as the military, universities, data centers and microgrids. The C&I sectors together account for close to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Many large-scale energy users such as Fortune 500 companies, and mission-critical users such as military bases, universities, healthcare facilities, public safety and data centers, shifting their energy priorities to reach net-zero carbon goals within the coming decades. These include plans for renewable energy power purchase agreements, but also on-site resiliency projects such as microgrids, combined heat and power, rooftop solar, energy storage, digitalization and building efficiency upgrades.

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