How the Microgrid Industry Changed in 2016: A Ben & Jerry’s Year

Dec. 30, 2016
The microgrid industry transformed in 2016 as plain vanilla microgrids gave way to a range of new kinds: virtual microgrids, blockchain microgrids, even flying microgrids, to name a few.

Consider 2016 a Ben & Jerry’s year for the microgrid industry. Microgrids expanded, not just in number, but in flavor.

Plain vanilla microgrids gave way to a range of new kinds: virtual microgrids, blockchain microgrids, even flying microgrids, to name a few.

Product differentiation reigned in 2016. But worldwide geographic expansion continued as well.

China, Russia, Australia, Africa and far flung islands became home to milestone microgrids.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continued as an epicenter of microgrid development, particularly California and the Northeast, but with notable activity found in every region.

Here’s a look at events and ideas that shaped the microgrid industry in 2016

Redefining microgrid

The number of U.S. microgrids expanded faster than analysts forecast in 2016. But the bigger story of the year centered on an expansion of the definition of ‘microgrid’.

More kinds of projects were described as microgrids, as the industry moved away from adhering to earlier definitions that required microgrids have multiple customers and multiple sources of distributed energy.

This happened as microgrid intelligence – the controls and software that act as the system brains – were increasingly applied to simpler energy systems, like solar plus storage.

With the rise of the solar microgrid, the microgrid industry began referring to solar panels that simply produce electricity as ‘dumb’ generation. In contrast, solar microgrids do more. They can island during an outage to keep the power on for its customer — or supply the grid with services when not islanded.

Driven by technology advancements, this expansion of definition echoes what occurred in the computer industry. A personal computer was once a box that sat on a desk; now it’s a phone, or even a watch. A microgrid was once multiple generators serving multiple buildings in a defined geography. Today it’s also a factory with a combined heat and power system or even a modular home. The key is that they each use microgrid controller intelligence that allows them to do more than just generate power.

Product differentiation has led to a range of microgrid types: fractal microgrids, virtual microgrids, blockchain microgrids, flying microgrids, sailing microgrids, plug-and-play microgrids, public purpose microgrids, community microgrids, transportable microgrids, reliability microgrids, modular microgridsnanogrids, and others.

We even have unintentional microgrids.

At the center of this change is the microgrid controller, an increasingly important piece of software technology. So not surprisingly, we saw industry players acquiring controller technology, advancing its abilities, and demonstrating how advanced controllers achieve return on investment.

New York and beyond…way beyond

New York continued to be a center of microgrid development. The state’s $40 million NY Prize produced the single largest data base on microgrid development in the world. The state also closed out its second of three application periods for the NY Prize funds.

But New York was far from alone among states trying to attract microgrids. Pilot projects, incentive funds, policy changes, and private commercial development occurred in several states.

California began a mapping process for microgrid policy development, chasing what is already a percolating microgrid market in the state, with public, private and landmark microgrids under development.

In Washington, D.C., the federal government is considering microgrid technology to include in a new energy backbone for the city.

Boston has mapped out dozens of potential microgrid sites and is making microgrids a central part of its climate change strategy. Massachusetts announced plans to release $14 million in resiliency funds for microgrids and similar technology to ensure energy for hospitals. The state also gained national stature after lawmakers approved an energy storage mandate. Only two other states – California and Oregon – have energy storage mandates so far.

Connecticut, the first state to seriously pursue microgrid incentives, released $30 million in additional funds for microgrid projects. Fuel cells, a growing industry in Connecticut, continued to find their way into microgrid projects. In addition, the city of Bridgeport began development on a microgrid that will provide premium services to critical facilities at a cost below that of conventional utility generation.

In Texas, a private company, Enchanted Rock, made serious inroads with reliability microgrids, which make commercial sites like convenience stores and travel centers into virtual power plants.

Alaska, which already boasts more microgrids than any other state, pushed the envelope on new technology. Maine utility Emera became part of a grid of microgrids plan that will extend across international borders into Canada.

Other U.S. utilities also advanced their microgrid efforts, among them American Electric Power, Arizona Public Service, Avista, Commonwealth Edison, Duke Energy, National Grid and Xcel Energy.

The microgrid industry expanded internationally too.

China’s first microgrid began operating in Beijing early in 2016. Late in the year, China’s largest solar plus storage microgrid connected to the grid in Tibet.

Australia showed itself as a highly promising microgrid market.  In Western Australia, Horizon Power announced plans to build what it describes as Australia’s biggest microgrid, which will supply more than half the electricity for Onslow, a coastal town in Western Australia. Meanwhile, Western Australia began planning its largest renewable microgrid.

Remote Himalaya villages lit up with new microgrids, as did far-flung islands. Efforts continued to bring reliable electricity to rural India and parts of Africa with microgrids.

A wind-powered microgrid in Russia’s Ust-Kamchatski offers potential for similar microgrid systems across Russia’s isolated communitiesKorea’s Kepco made more international moves to further its microgrid business. Japan advanced its microgrid know-how into the Philippines. Central America saw its first solar plus storage microgrid development at a medical manufacturing plant in Costa Rica.

Grid hacking & storms

Reliability remains the biggest reason we install microgrids, according to a Microgrid Knowledge survey. And between hacking scares and some major power outages, 2016 offered good reason for reliability to remain a priority.

The U.S. government found that Russia hacked and disabled the grid in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a state of Connecticut report warned that there will likely be a U.S. utility cyber disruption at some point. And blizzardshurricanes and other storms made clear electricity’s frailty in North America and elsewhere.

Other trends? The U.S. military remained a leader in the microgrid industry, advancing several projects in 2016, among them Yuma, Otis, Miramar, Redstone.

Also, the term ‘microgrid ready’ became a thing. This means a project is built to someday accommodate a microgrid. We saw the term crop up in several places.

These are a few of the trends we spotted in 2016. You’ve likely seen others. Please share them below or on our LinkedIn Group, Microgrid Knowledge.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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