Are We Missing the True Worth of Microgrids?

June 11, 2015
Microgrids are catching on quickly as way to avert power outages, spur local energy, and green the grid. But the true worth of microgrids has yet to be exploited — using a microgrid as a computer.

Microgrids are catching on quickly as way to avert power outages, spur local energy, and green the grid. But the true worth of microgrids has yet to be exploited — the microgrid as a computer.

That’s the word from John Jung, CEO of Greensmith, a company that has landed several high profile contracts for its energy storage software and analytics and was named a 2015 New Energy Pioneer by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“People really need to be thinking bigger about what’s possible,” said Jung in a recent interview.  “Microgrid is a phenomenal opportunity to flex a lot of computing muscle.”

Microgrids tend to be developed as a source of generation or perhaps as a way to manage energy for buildings.  But there is a broader set of value streams waiting to be captured and used by grid-connected microgrids.

The value would come from information about the tremendous change, activity and conditions occurring at any given time on the local grid. Unfortunately, microgrids don’t yet have the necessary computing power to gather and use this level of data, according to Jung.

“The one piece I really see missing is some kind of layer of optimization or control presiding over the microgrid that says, ‘What does the polynomial definition of a good-day look like for that microgrid,’” he said.

In seeking out that “good day,” the microgrid-as-computer would look at the way electricity is used in a particular location, where it is coming from, what it cost, how much is available, the way it’s delivered, and potential scenarios that make the system feeder vulnerable.

This kind of localized look at frequency, voltage, cost, and capacity opens up the possibility of a new set of efficiencies in energy management and resource choice.

Some of this local grid information is available now, but it is not necessarily being modeled and used, Jung said.

John Jung, Greensmith CEO

But it’s coming…

As an example of what the future holds, Jung pointed to a Greensmith project in California that supports an EV charging carport, solar canopy and battery storage.

The system’s true promise lies in its intelligence. “It is not just thinking about where to charge and discharge, but what are the cheapest sources of electrons to charge up the car,” he said. “Does it come from the localized grid connect? Does it come from the battery? Does it come from the PV canopy?”

Ideally, a future microgrid-as-computer would function in a similar way. It would use localized information to calculate which of its resources offer the cheapest source of electricity at any given time and then schedule them in advance.

Jung’s not aware of a microgrid controller that can accomplish all of this. But he believes it is coming. After all, today’s computer industry is all about maximizing resources and reducing cost. Just consider the cheap supercomputers we now hold in our hands on a daily basis.

But for now, the microgrid as a computer has a way to go.

“People will declare a victory about having some semblance of control over a building’s electricity for heating or cooling. That’s just scratching the surface in terms of what you can do if you look at the microgrid as a distributed computer with an array of solar, efficiency, batteries and other sources of generation and control,” he said.

What do you see ahead for microgrids as their computing power grows? Post in the comments below or on our Linkedin Group, Community Microgrids and Local Energy.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

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

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