Milbank and the Human Side of Microgrids

Sept. 14, 2016
Kansas City-based Milbank shows the human side of microgrids with a Haitian project designed to keep families together and reduce the likelihood of children becoming orphans.

Microgrids often are built to assure power supply, cut costs, or increase sustainability. Keeping families together is a benefit we’ve not heard of before. Yet that’s exactly what a project planned in Haiti is designed to do.

Kansas City-based Milbank, a third-generation family-owned manufacturing company, is working on the project with a Haitian garment factory run by Global Orphan. The fair trade factory employs single-parent families, helping them gain skills and income so that they can remain independent and raise their children.

Since there is no reliable central grid, the factory has relied on diesel-fired generation. That limits the number of hours the manufacturer can operate to a few per day.

Milbank monitored energy usage with its SynapSentry audit modules at the factory and an accompanying hotel and helped design a plan for a solar-plus-storage microgrid.

The microgrid would help the factory extend its operational hours, yet reduce energy costs — by as much as 65 percent. The extra money can then be used to add more equipment and increase employment.

“Their goal is to use money that they would have spent on diesel to bring more people in — give them fair wage jobs,” said Kristen Thomas, energy solutions manager at Milbank.

The idea is to relieve economic strain that fractures families and makes children more vulnerable to becoming orphans.

Many of the families live under rudimentary conditions, so the Global Orphan-run facility also offers a place to charge phones, shower and gather water to bring home. (Check out this video about the project.)

Human side of microgrids in Tanzania

The Haiti project is one example of the human side of microgrids. In a completely different part of the world — and for a different reason — a project is underway on an island in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria.

Only one percent of the population has access to electricity, according to the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). The island has no real public infrastructure and the community depends on fishing as a livelihood. With electricity comes refrigeration and the ability to preserve fish and expand the catch available for export, more commerce and better living conditions for the island inhabitants.

MRIGlobal is the leader on the project, which was granted funds last year by the USTDA. Others working on the 2-MW project are Rex Energy, a Tanzania renewable energy developer, Homer Energy, Enphase Energy, RULEX Media, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Milbank is not part of the first team, but hopes to participate in similar, future projects on other Lake Victoria islands.

Milbank points out that the energy needs in Haiti and Lake Victoria are not unique — thousands of similar situations exist worldwide where microgrids could better the human condition.

Back in Kansas City, Milbank operates a research microgrid where it can simulate microgrids for the more far flung regions. The demonstration microgrid includes a weather station, a 55-kW wind turbine, 27 kW of solar, 208 kWh of lithium ion phosphate battery storage and a 60-kW diesel generator configured to charge the batteries. The project also features a 125 kW and two 30 kW Ideal Power inverters.

The project helps Milbank research and evaluate the economics of microgrids with use of predicative analytics.  The company hopes to determine the ‘confidence factor’ for how accurately predicative analytics matches real-time events.

“A lot of people employ weather forecasts – I don’t know if they ever look for a correlation for their actual weather versus predicted weather,” said John Siglock, Milbank vice president, engineering.

The analytics help Milbank determine when solar is available to produce energy, when buildings can go into peak shaving mode, and other energy management strategies.

“We try to do as much as we can by communicating with existing devices. That’s the essence of SynapSuite (Milbank’s microgrid controller). We communicate with inverters, batteries, generators, thermostats, literally anything that’s involved in energy,” said Siglock.

Milbank is exploring use of its controller technology in a range of other kinds of microgrids, from the small microgrid-in-a-container to projects with multiple generation sources that benefit from optimization.

“We don’t care where the power comes from, or what assets are there, or what assets you might want to add in the future. The system is designed to be able to integrate any kind of energy needs and optimize them to work together,” Thomas said.

Like others in the controller space, the company is finding growing interest in its technology beyond a microgrid — or at least a strictly defined microgrid. Microgrid controller intelligence is increasingly being applied to microgrid-like projects — solar plus storage or solar/diesel hybrids — to save and manage usage and optimize energy assets.

Milbank sees itself on the crest of the wave as microgrid intelligence begins to permeate a range of electricity systems.

One of our greatest attributes is the fact that we’ve realized there is no set solution,” said Siglock. “It will always change and we have to be flexible with our system and be adaptive.”

Read more articles about remote microgrids here.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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