Locals and Techies Promote Intriguing Critical Services Microgrid for Asheville, NC

Jan. 29, 2021
A group of volunteers, many with backgrounds in engineering and renewables, has proposed a critical services microgrid for Asheville, North Carolina. Can this grassroots effort serve as a model for others?

What do you get when you bring together an energy consultant, an aerospace engineer, a former engineering professor and a cybersecurity expert — all of them in Asheville, North Carolina, a city renowned for its creative spirit.

It turns out you get a microgrid proposal — and an intriguing one at that.

The group of volunteers is pitching a critical services microgrid for Asheville, one that will not only bring resilience to certain county buildings, but also could mark the start of a larger grid of microgrids as a model for other locales.

Inspiration for the microgrid came from a solar project launched by Buncombe County, where Asheville is located. Last spring, the county issued a request for proposals (RFP) for nearly 8 MW of solar and financed it with $10.2 million borrowed at a 1.5 % interest rate, thanks to the county’s AAA credit rating, said Keith Thomson, co-founder of the Critical Services Microgrid (CSM) group. He’s an information technology provider who has served on city and county committees related to energy.

Members of the group worked on the solar project before forming CSM to develop the microgrid plan.

Asheville as inspiration

Thomson and Kelly Gloger, a renewable energy consultant, founded the microgrid effort, and they were soon joined by the aerospace engineer, a former engineering professor, an energy consultant and a cybersecurity expert, among others.

“We have spent the year of Covid focusing on the horizon, beyond what the city and county have yet adopted as priorities. We intend to patiently change that,” said Thomson.

One of the goals of the effort is to inspire other cities and counties to follow the group’s example.

Laura Brower, the aerospace engineer, said that by taking the first step in promoting the microgrid concept, the group hopes that more governments, companies and individuals “will be inspired to participate creatively in their own community’s energy future.”

A microgrid of nanogrids

CSM plans to begin with a nanogrid that takes advantage of solar that will be installed on a county building — the Family Justice Center (FJC) parking lot deck — thanks to the county’s solar RFP. The nanogrid would provide resilience to the emergency management center in the building.

“Beginning by using the already funded FJC parking deck solar is part of the scalable approach. Adding batteries, microgrid controls, DERMS [distributed energy resources management system], with the focus on meeting identified critical loads during island mode operations is part of our approach,” said Thomson.

Ultimately, CSM’s goal is to install several nanogrids that could be scaled up to a virtual power plant. “Or we could wire them together to make them all one campus, with one transmission station, a microgrid of nanogrids,” he said.

Student assistance

The group is now seeking energy data about the building from the county to evaluate the economics of investments in energy efficiency, solar and storage, and possibly electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

The engineering department students at the University of North Carolina Asheville and North Carolina State University will participate in the audit under faculty supervision.

The team will collect a list of all electrical equipment required for the operation of the emergency management center, identifying the service panels that supply them. It will then identify energy efficiency measures, the battery capacity and the energy management systems required to provide resilience in the building. The team will also estimate annual energy costs when efficiency measures and the nanogrid have been installed.

CSM would then provide the city and county with a report on the costs and benefits of developing an RFP for an “Energy Savings Corporation” or an energy-as-a-service company that could fund and implement the project. A nanogrid is also being considered for a different building, the Buncombe County Detention Center.

Why this location

Brownie Newman,  chairman, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said he’s excited about the county’s solar project, and that it’s a small step toward moving away from fossil fuels. He’s also interested in solar plus storage, if cost effective.

“My number one priority as a commissioner is to continue installations of new solar generation for on-site use on our facilities as well as promoting more grid-tied utility-scale solar farm projects in the region,” said Newman. Because renewables are still a small percentage of overall generation compared to fossil fuel plants, it’s important to ramp up the deployment of cost-effective new solar, he added.

As the county releases additional RFPs for solar installations, it should also look at solar coupled with battery storage as a way to reduce facility peak demand charges and improve electrical reliability, he said.

“…a community’s health and happiness relies on their ability to manage their local resources and make their own decisions…” — Laura Brower

Newman noted that a challenge to the project is the potentially high cost of installing the nanogrids and microgrids in the downtown urban core, rather than in other areas of the community.

“We will likely want to focus our first solar and storage projects around the applications that will be the most cost effective, and it will take additional planning and analysis work to determine which facilities around the county may be the best first applications for solar with storage or similar microgrid applications,” said Newman.

Thomson responded that the group challenges public officials to consider the value of resiliency and powering critical services for law enforcement, health and public safety. “Our systems’ approach is proven to lower costs, while becoming prepared for what’s coming,” he said.

Advantages of the critical services microgrid

Resiliency is important to the county because it has been hit by hurricanes, wildfires and flooding that have knocked out power and fuel supplies, said Thomson.

In addition, clean energy will serve to complement the county and city effort to move to 100% renewables, said David Erb, a former engineering professor and member of both the microgrid and renewables teams.

“I think it’s a way that we can compliment the renewable energy activities that are also going on in Asheville,” he said. The county’s move toward renewables suggests that it will be open to the microgrid project, he added.

For Brower, the project has an important focus on local resource management.

“I believe that a community’s health and happiness relies on their ability to manage their local resources and make their own decisions — at a community level — about how to live. Local resource management can have a long-lasting positive impact on the environment, which is very important to me,” she said.

The group is now seeking partners. More information about the microgrid proposal is available here.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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