History tells us that disasters tend to spur new interest in microgrids. This pandemic is no exception as COVID-19 strains hospitals, data centers and food distribution and delivery systems, making power outages unthinkable.
A quote in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan, being widely circulated on social media, sums up how important electricity is right now:
“There are a million warnings out there on a million serious things. We add one: Everything works — and will continue to work — as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid, the grid, the grid.”
Underscoring this idea the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners yesterday urged state authorities to designate utility workers as essential to the nation’s critical infrastructure during the pandemic.
In addition, many utilities and state commissions throughout the US have taken quick action to prohibit power shut offs to customers who are behind on their payments. That takes care of lack of power due to economics, but it’s not so easy to control outages brought by nature. And unfortunately both hurricane season and California’s wildfire season are threatening to collide with the pandemic.
Short and long term prognosis
“Human contact is restricted, there are a lot of people ill, the hospitals are overflowing. The last thing anyone would want to worry about is the availability of power supply,” said Shashank Pande, software solutions architect for utility control center solutions at Siemens Digital Grid. “Microgrids are especially important from the resiliency standpoint in this situation.”
Businesses, institutions, utilities and others install microgrids for varied reasons; some are motivated by economics, others environment. But energy resiliency is the technology’s signature value. Microgrids, which operate 24/7/365, provide electric reliability by islanding from the grid during a power outage and using their own on-site resources to supply power to their customers.
The microgrid industry was experiencing fast growth before COVID-19. Now microgrid developers report project delays because workers are in isolation, supply chains are disrupted, and society is frozen with uncertainty. But they see the delays as temporary and expect progress to resume, as the pandemic drives consumers and businesses to seek greater energy security. This is a familiar pattern for the microgrid sector, one that often follows major hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.
“In the long term we expect that all the issues that are driving both energy efficiency, microgrids and distributed energy resources (DER) will still be in place,” said Michael Byrnes, chief operating officer of Veolia subsidiary SourceOne. “For the short to medium range effects, I believe we will have to work our way through the Corona-recession which may make people reorganize their investment priorities. “
He added that so far, customers are advancing their bids and designs for microgrids and DER projects that were already in process prior to the Covid 19 slowdowns.
“Hopefully the unprecedented world wide impact and cooperation that we are seeing will get people thinking more about climate change and how fragile the planet really is,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes expects to see more organizations outsourcing their energy facility operations following the pandemic, a service Veolia offers. This approach is common in the microgrid industry, particularly under energy-as-a-service or performance contracting.
“In times of a crisis like this, it becomes more obvious than ever that people want a utility professional taking care of their utilities while they concentrate on their core business,” Byrnes said.
Crisis requires brains, microgrid brains
Siemens’ Pande expects to see more attention given to the sophistication of microgrid controllers, the ‘brain’ of the microgrid which Siemens offers. The controller not only allows the microgrid to island, but also engage in sophisticated energy management. Some controllers are smarter than others and more automated.
“During unusual times such as this, the demand pattern dramatically changes, e.g. maybe part of the commercial operation is closed and there is dramatic load reduction. Or some emergency operation is added and there is a dramatic increase in demand,” he said.
Microgrid owners need to evaluate their controllers to be sure they work correctly, given that they may have been designed for a different demand and usage profile, he said. Smart microgrids adjust, themselves, to the changed conditions.
Close eye on hospitals
Hospitals are an important customer for the microgrid sector, given their life and death need for power. Microgrid companies are keeping a close eye on how the pandemic impacts healthcare energy usage.
Bloom Energy, for example, has been reaching out to its partners in healthcare to see how increased ventilator use changes electric demand.
“If you get a surge in ventilators, you’re going to need more electricity. That’s one reason we’re maintaining our production line — so that we can be here to support and maintain and even install if we need to, energy servers and microgrids, in response to the crisis,” said Susan Brennan, chief operations officer at Bloom Energy.
Unfortunately, keen interest in microgrids often emerges only after a disaster, too late to correct the damage wrought by the most recent power outage. Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast US, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and last year’s wildfire related power shut offs in California mark a few examples.
So as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the US, microgrid companies are preparing to help: collecting information, navigating a tricky economic environment, and poised for what they’ve become accustomed to — a post-disaster refocus on the value of microgrids.
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