Maybe it was the pandemic or maybe it was the law of accelerating returns. Whatever the case, 2020 brought rapid change for microgrids. Where the technology was solidly for the few in 2019, it suddenly looked quite possibly for the many in 2020. That’s why Microgrid Knowledge is naming the home microgrid, as its 2020 ‘Person of the Year.’
To explain, let me jump back 18 months to our annual conference in May 2019. There were many intriguing discussions at the event, but one session in particular now strikes me as pivotal. John Westerman, then with Dynamic Energy Networks and now with Schneider Electric, gave a presentation on how he built his own home microgrid, what some would call a nanogrid.
At the time, home microgrids were an oddity, and his presentation did little to make me think that would change anytime soon. Westerman’s microgrid was affordable because he did the engineering and labor himself. Unfortunately, few of us know skilled microgrid engineers willing to do pro bono work for us.
So home microgrids, while found here and there, still appeared far down the road as an accessible product. At that point, most microgrids were being built for businesses, colleges, hospitals, and the like. But three things happened to shorten the road a lot.
The first was the public safety power shutoff, the term California’s utilities use to describe the practice they began of shutting off power to customers to avoid sparking wildfires with their electrical equipment.
Outages humiliating for California
California first felt the brunt of the practice in October 2019, an experience the Los Angeles Times described as “humiliating.” More outages were to come, leaving millions of Californians in the dark over the wildfire seasons of 2019 and 2020. The bitter cherry on the top for California was an unusual rolling blackout in August 2020, brought about not by wildfires but a lack of adequate electric supply in the face of extreme heat. After that, as one microgrid developer told Microgrid Knowledge, “Demand was through the roof before and now it’s through the chimney.
Add to all of this the pandemic and the mass migration to work-at-home in 2020. Power outages, whether from a wildfire, hurricane or neighborhood squirrel gnawing a wire, suddenly meant a lot more inconvenience than a blinking clock on the oven.
The third driver relates to the falling price of the technologies that make up microgrids, coupled with the growing acumen of the industry to create financing packages and business models that relieve the homeowner from making a large capital expenditure.
A beginning for the home microgrid
While commercial, industrial and institutional microgrids remain the bread and butter of the microgrid industry, several companies this year announced projects or products related to the residential market, among them.
- Instant On, a California startup announced a partnership with All American Homes to install microgrids for veterans.
- Emera Technologies, a subsidiary of the $32 billion utility Emera, is bringing microgrid technology to 40 homes in a housing development in Tampa, Florida. Emera is working with partner Lennar Homes and Metro Development Group to install what it calls BlockEnergy, a residential plug and play microgrid.
- Several home microgrids are underway in Maryland. They include the first connected neighborhood in the state, an effort by utility Potomac Electric Power Company and Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority. The project is the recipient of state funding. Another project, this one by Sunverge Energy, will create a residential virtual power plant for Delmarva Power using a nanogrid controller platform for 110 homes in an isolated community on the Chesapeake Bay.
- OhmConnect is taking the idea of the home microgrid a step further. Their systems not only serve the home but helped bolster California’s ailing grid. During an August 15 power outage the company used a network of home microgrids and home appliances to provide 220 MWh to the grid as a generating resource. In turn, the company paid homeowners $300,000. Now OhmConnect is set to build what it describes as the world’s biggest virtual power plant, 550 megawatts created by pooling and controlling homeowners’ devices and microgrids.
The rise of the home microgrid also is transforming the home’s once plain-Jane electric switching panel, an appliance until now forgotten in the basement until a circuit overloads. New smart panels announced this year undertake a range of feats, from sophisticated load management to control of distributed energy resources and even islanding. Among the companies in the space are Span and Koben.
More recently, Schneider Electric, one of the giants in the microgrid sector, partnered with SolarEdge to focus on the residential market with a new energy control system. Not a microgrid, but a step in that direction, the Square D Energy Center, gives homeowners personalized digital control over how their solar energy is produced, used and stored.
Finally, we want to note that the home microgrid, or nanogrid, proved to be the star of the Microgrid Knowledge white paper library in 2020. The library is the largest collection in the world of papers on microgrids. And what paper was downloaded the most? “Nanogrids: A New Opportunity for the Solar Industry,” produced by Instant On and Microgrid Knowledge.
The thing that gets you to the thing
So for all of these reasons, Microgrid Knowledge names ‘The Home Microgrid’ as the 2020 person of the year. We don’t mean to imply that homeowners will be clamoring at Lowe’s for microgrids this year. This is a very early stage market. Most people still don’t know what microgrids are. But they do know that they want what microgrids offer. As fictitious Silicon Valley visionary Joe MacMillan liked to say in the television series, Halt and Catch Fire: “Computers aren’t the thing. They are the thing that gets you to the thing.” Swap the word ‘computers’ for ‘microgrids.’ Microgrids are the thing that gets you to the thing: energy reliability, resilience, and lower-cost energy.
Read more about home microgrids here on Microgrid Knowledge.