Let’s Count the Many Ways Microgrids Serve the Greater Good

May 11, 2018
If you think of microgrids as mere backup power, think again. That was the message from panelists at Microgrid 2018 who described how microgrids serve the greater good in the U.S and abroad.

If you think of microgrids as mere backup power, think again. That was the message from panelists at Microgrid 2018 who described how microgrids serve the greater good in the U.S and abroad.

Their projects include electrifying parts of Somalia, helping prevent brain drain in Africa and India, cost-effectively solving a utility’s peak problems in New York City, and providing electricity and heat for communities during outages.

Moderator Michael Kilpatrick, vice president of power systems solutions for S&C Electric, related a personal story that drove home how microgrids serve the greater good. While he was staying in a hotel with his family, power was knocked out. He and his family went downstairs to the lobby to leave, only to find that about 14 panicky people in wheelchairs had assembled.

If a microgrid had been close by, these people who needed medical care would likely have found a safe haven, he said.

“As big storms displace people in communities, the grid is critical,” he said.

Stabilizing war-torn Somalia

During the first panel, Sean Brooks, director of business development, SolarGen Technologies, described his company’s move into Somalia as the war-torn country started to stabilize. SolarGen began in Nigeria with solar pumping projects, but saw that Somalia, with some of the highest electricity rates in the world, was a good market for mini-grids.

At first, people in Somalia wanted solar street lights, Brooks said. “This was simple with an enormous impact” because it allowed Somalian businesses to operate for longer periods of time, he said. Next the company provided solar-powered pumping stations. And last year, SolarGen was awarded funds from government and aid organizations to electrify 200 houses in Somalia with solar mini-grids.

Sean Brooks, SolarGen Technologies

Under a second contract with an NGO, the company will electrify homes in a new development for refugees returning to Somalia. The company has additional mini-grids planned and hopes to use innovative financing to help fund the residents’ utility payments. The mini-grid power is roughly half the price of the expensive power from diesel used in Somalia.

Kilpatrick commented, “If you ever take electricity for granted, after the project Sean talks about I don’t think you will. It underlines the fact that electricity is synonymous with life.”

“…electricity is synonymous with life” — Mike Kilpatrick, S&C Electric

Preventing brain drain in rural villages

Tim Condon, Veriown

Like Brooks, Tim Condon, chief innovation & technology officer, Veriown, “a for-profit social good company,” also focuses on developing countries, he said during the panel discussion.

The company concentrates on replacing the kerosene used in Africa and India for lights and phone charging. Veriown began by finding in capital markets a way to provide credit to people who have no credit history, solving a major challenge. Veriown now has about $40,000-$50,000 in pre-orders for its light and phone charging microgrids.

Solving the light and phone-charging challenges yielded lots of other benefits, he said. The project connects communities that aren’t now able to connect easily, promoting commerce among them.

“We are piling so much stuff into this offer. People are going to get movies and cricket games. It may sound superlative, but these are the things that cause brain drain from villages and cause kids to leave. It’s very real and now,” he said.

Providing power and security

Doug Staker, Enel X

Doug Staker, vice president of global business, Enel X, related his company’s efforts to solve an economic and reliability problem for Consolidated Edison (Con Edison) in New York City.

He described what’s known as the Brooklyn Queens Demand  Management program, which emerged after the utility forecast a 52 MW peak that would require construction of a new substation. The upgrade would have cost $1.2 billion basically to protect the area from peaks that happen for four, 12-hour periods in summer, he said.

Instead, state regulators allowed Con Edison to spend $200 million to try to find non-wires alternatives. The utility issued a competitive solicitation seeking solutions from outside parties. Among those chosen was Staker’s company to build the Marcus Garvey microgrid, the first microgrid for the city’s low-income housing stock.

The microgrid saves money in numerous ways. It allows Con Edison to delay investing in the $1.2 billion substation. Also, the company chose to sign up for a demand management program and take advantage of the project’s solar energy and storage to store solar at night and release it during peak hours.

“Demand charges are some of the highest in the world in New York,” Staker said. “ConEd has an interesting rate structure that allows us to manage that peak and reap economic returns.”

The project also provides benefits during outages, he noted.

“During outages we can provide power and security. While we can’t provide power to all the apartments, we are able to provide that center hub with extended power capabilities over multi-day outages. We can benefit the local community because they can come charge phones. We are trying to walk the talk by helping a region in the city that’s overlooked.”

Where utility microgrids serve the greater good

Joseph Svachula, Commonwealth Edison

For Joseph Svachula, Commonwealth Edison’s director of distribution system planning, smart grid and innovation, serving the greater good is about creating a unique — and much-watched — microgrid project in Chicago.

The company identified the Bronzeville area as a location that would benefit from a microgrid because it was home to a police station and other essential services. The utility saw the project as a good way to further understanding of how the technology can boost customer service.

The Illinois Commerce Commission in March approved the $25 million project, the nation’s first utility-scale microgrid cluster, which involves connecting multiple microgrids. The project is expected to demonstrate what some see as an eventual retooling of today’s centralized electric system into a grid-of-microgrids.

“We know that microgrids will proliferate behind the meter, but we’re trying to fill that void in places that all of our customers can benefit: Hospitals, first responders, water,” he said.

Naysayers argue that hospitals and other emergency facilities already have back-up generation. While that’s true, in most cases the back-up generators serve only critical functions. So hospitals “shut down surgeries…they stop functioning at 100 percent,” he said.

Microgrids act as an oasis for the community during a power outage. “People can get medicine, people can get water, people can get food,” Svachula said.

It’s about resiliency

Rick Welton, Ameren

Rick Welton, senior director, distribution planning, operating & reliability, Ameren Illinois, said his company’s utility-scale microgrid in Champaign, is all about providing resiliency — at the right cost.

“For a long time we’ve heard about reliability but now it’s about resiliency,” Welton said. “What the customer is willing to pay for us is key.”

Located adjacent to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, the microgrid includes a 160‐foot wind turbine, solar panels and natural gas generators. The microgrid can produce enough electricity to serve nearly 200 local residential and commercial customers.

The company built the microgrid to test monitoring and control strategies for aggregating clean energy sources with advanced automation and battery storage, according to company materials.

In August, during a 24-hour microgrid islanding test, the microgrid demonstrated that it’s able to seamlessly disconnect from the grid and run on renewable energy.

“I don’t thing microgrids are for every application,” said Welton. “That’s the problem we’re trying to solve and need to look and see if it makes sense for some customers or some communities.”

This panel discussion on how microgrids serve the greater good was part of the three-day Microgrid 2018 conference, held by Microgrid Knowledge in Chicago May 7-9.

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

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

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