New England Grid Operator Puzzles in Microgrids and Energy Storage: Regional Outlook

March 26, 2019
The good news in New England is that the trend is toward using lower-carbon fuels. The bad news is that grid managers are operating on thin margins and may have to rely on costlier measures to maintain grid reliability. What role will energy storage and microgrids have during this period?

The good news in New England is that the trend is toward using lower-carbon fuels. The bad news is that grid managers are operating on thin margins and may have to rely on costlier measures to maintain grid reliability. What role will energy storage and microgrids have during this period?  

By Song_about_summer/

The New England Independent System Operator, ISO-NE, says in its 2019 Regional Electricity Outlook that its challenges are to integrate greater levels of renewables onto the grid while also maintaining a robust transmission system and energy security. Some of the issues to overcome are bringing battery storage to market while dealing with stricter air emissions rules that can limit the use of conventional infrastructure.

While battery storage may be a challenge, it is also an opportunity: In the past, New England has benefited from two pumped-hydro facilities that have supplied nearly 2,000 MW of capacity within 10 minutes. But today, the report goes on to say, the region has 20 MW of grid-scale battery storage, and it has another 1,300 MW on the table, which could come on line by 2022.

Energy storage can help maintain balance and frequency control while providing back-up power during electricity outages for a few hours at a time. And those devices can also enable the development of microgrids, which typically have some combination of localized generation and battery storage. While the ultimate goal is to ensure reliability, batteries do need to be charged and if they are needed during an outage, they may actually end up draining energy from the grid. (Editors Note: This is where a microgrid can come into play. Unaffected by the grid outage, its on-site generators continue to operate, energizing the microgrid’s customers or batteries — whichever is the priority at the time.)

The progress? Massachusetts, for example, has an energy-storage target of 1,000 MWh by December 31, 2025. The state has awarded $20 million in grants to 26 such demonstration projects. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s regulators approved a pilot program for utilities that will deploy up to 200 customer-sited batteries in phase one and up to 800 batteries in phase two, the report says.

“ISO New England continues to remove barriers and expand market access for new energy-storage technologies,” the report says.

Demand response led the way for energy storage

“Operational coordination between the wholesale market and retail level distributed resources and microgrids is complex, and it will remain important for all resources that provide wholesale grid reliability services to have the same obligations and performance incentives,” the report adds. “For the most part, the ISO will rely on aggregators to integrate small-scale distributed resources into the wholesale market, much as the ISO does with demand response providers. In fact, the ISO’s integration of demand response paved the way for the full integration of storage and microgrids.”

In February 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted allow grid managers to compensate energy storage in the same way they do traditional power generators. Energy storage would thus graduate beyond the injection of electrons to prevent lights from flickering out and into the wholesale energy markets. And those changes are about to take effect.

At the same time, the ISO can use demand response programs to shift electricity usage during peak periods. It can do this, in part, by switching to microgrids, on-site generators or energy storage devices.

See how microgrids integrate energy storage in real world projects. Join us at Microgrid 2019: Shaping the New Electric Grid in San Diego, May 14-16

The latest technological advances have their roots in the mid-1990s — the beginnings of restructuring in the electricity markets and specifically in the wholesale sector, where utilities and power producers sell to each other and directly to large industrials. The goal had been to create a competitive market to give those produces and large users more options. Those objectives, however, didn’t foresee “energy scarcity” or a way to drive investment to fuel infrastructure, the report says.

Not only are more and more renewable electrons traversing across the wires that may need back up depending upon the weather, but electricity production is also becoming more distributed. There are more homeowners with solar rooftop panels, for example. At the same time, there are incentives to produce and to use renewable energy resources and that can distort wholesale markets — favoring them at the expense of conventional fuels, according to ISO-NE.

“As more limited-energy resources are developed and traditional generating resources retire, there is a risk that resources at times will not have the fuel (be it natural gas, wind, sun, or even stored energy in batteries) needed to generate enough electricity to meet system demand,” writes Phillip Shapiro, board chair, and Gordon van Wellie, chief executive of the ISO-NE. “Improvements to the wholesale markets are required to appropriately compensate resources able to ensure a secure energy supply is available to support electricity demand across all kinds of system conditions.”

The analysis continues: “We have leveled the playing field for wind, solar, and advanced storage devices by adapting market rules and updating operating procedures. We’ve implemented measures to protect and enhance price formation during scarcity and surplus conditions. And we’ve also strengthened financial consequences for resources that do not perform as committed.”

Less carbon, more efficiency, new investment

The NE ISO says that it will continue to support the rapid transformation to a low-carbon society while it will work to attract investment in existing resources. The goal is grid reliability, especially as the region tries to electrify its transportation industry and home heating sector. And it is having some success in managing the changes: Electricity consumers in New England used about 121,000 GWh of electricity from the grid in 2018, down from the record 136,355 GWh consumed in 2005, it says.

Meantime, the area is attracting new investment in infrastructure, although there is concern that the natural gas pipelines are too restricted. It is most acutely felt during extremely cold days in the winter. That said, about $10.7 billion has been — or will soon be — invested compared to $1.6 billion in 2002.

“This investment has also enabled the interconnection of power plants with lower emissions, as well as the more efficient flow of low-cost power across the region,” the analysis says.

ISO NE says that is committed to getting more renewables generated and onto the grid while also guaranteeing grid reliability. And that includes making investments in storage devices, energy efficiency and distributed generation. Opposition to such challenges, it emphasizes, will only make its grid management tasks more difficult.

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About the Author

Ken Silverstein

Since the late 1990s, I've covered energy, beginning with the rise and fall of Enron -- first as a magazine writer before becoming a columnist. For more than seven years, I've been a columnist for Forbes while also expanding my coverage to include key environmental issues and emerging technologies such as microgrids. I've also done some global reporting of those same issues that touch the African and Asian regions. My work has appeared in, and by cited by, dozens of publications and broadcasts.

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