Elisa Wood, editor-in-chief at Microgrid Knowledge, and Zachary Bradford, CEO at CleanSpark — which has doubled in size over the past 12 months — discussed the biggest drivers and largest challenges the microgrid industry has faced this year, including a global pandemic, wildfires and intense hurricanes.
Events that drove microgrid development in 2020 also made the construction of microgrids difficult: A global pandemic, wildfires, and hurricanes in the Gulf.
Or as Bradford put it: “The challenges and drivers for 2020 have been a little bit one and the same, in a sense.”
Specifically, commercial and industrial companies — a large customer base for microgrids — saw dramatic changes in their energy profiles, the CEO pointed out.
“They went from having very busy offices or facilities to having empty offices and facilities,” Bradford said. Closed offices use far less energy, or use it at different times than they would have otherwise.
On top of that, businesses delayed decisions on energy upgrades. Many had been eager to put a microgrid in place, but they “put the pause button on” until work returns to normal, he said.
But, at the same time, 2020’s “level of uncertainty” has heightened awareness about the energy market and increased focus on the value of resiliency.
Bradford told Wood that not only has the company seen growth in the commercial industrial space, but also in the residential market, which “has developed in a new way, with all the people working from home.”
Cost reductions for equipment and from vendors have also been making microgrid projects more feasible these days.
“There are projects penciling today that didn’t pencil 18 months ago,” he said.
As for what’s changed for CleanSpark, in particular, Bradford said, “What we’ve done is we’ve mined a lot more data to find the opportunities. We’ve expanded our sales force because it does take more work to get projects through. For us, it’s actually been a great year.”
He sees this as proof that “the microgrid market is here to stay, and it’s going to be growing.”
“And, really, at the core of what we try and do is be flexible and intelligent, which is what our products are based on is forecasting intelligence in the controls of a microgrid,” Bradford said. “Again, because of the uncertainty that’s come up, more and more people are realizing that if you don’t have intelligence built into your system, it will cause problems in one way, shape or form, and will reduce your return on investment. So, for us, we are really trying to drive the return on investment for people that are deploying microgrids.”
Wood and Bradford moved on to discuss microgid innovation, and what’s next for the technology. The microgrid controller is the “heart and soul of microgrid innovation,” Wood pointed out.
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Bradford noted that on the hardware side of the microgrid market, a larger variety of assets are being put into play.
“I’m actually really excited about the level of thought that is going into things,” Bradford said.
For example, it is not common for CleanSpark to plan and execute solar and storage microgrids for clients these days because as fuel cell costs are going down, certain types of generators are becoming more feasible.
And, as microgrids continue to get more complicated, companies like CleanSpark are providing software designed to “make the complicated easy.”
“The controller that we have doesn’t involve a man in the loop, and I think that’s becoming more and more important in the whole thing — there’s no human that needs to pull thelever; the software and forecasting does it for you.”
And, this type of self-optimizing energy system is gaining in use and popularity.
Bradford concluded by predicting the “floodgates will open” for the microgrid market in 2021.
“I actually had thought that maybe 2020 was going to be that year, and I think we were heading that way when the pandemic happened. And, I think that there is a massive amount of pent-up demand where people delayed decisions, or, for us, we have a lot of proposals sitting that people are going to be ready to move forward on once they have certainty about the future,” he said.
“It’s been a tough year for a lot of people, and that’s created a lot of challenges,” he said.
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