Tony Soverns, chief technology officer at Go Electric, explains why the next advances in the market will be driven by new microgrid manufacturing and production systems.
When we talk about the evolution of microgrids, we tend to talk about the technology and its applications. We focus on the possibility of new advancements in energy storage, new advancements in power conversion systems, new advancements in controls, and get glassy eyed with terms such as IOT and AI. With all this focus on the product technology, we fail to address the manufacturing and production of microgrids.
Instead of looking forward, I want to look backward and see what we can learn and apply to today. I would like to draw some parallels between the evolution of microgrid production and the production evolution of another revolutionary technology that has altered our existence as much as any other — the automobile. Very few inventions have altered our existence in more ways than the automobile. A full 86% of US adults own or lease an automobile today. The ability to operate a personal vehicle has made incalculable changes to the way we live and the growth of our economy.
Early vehicle production closely mirrors the way early microgrids were being developed until very recently. At first, local mechanics experimented with a wide variety of prototypes. Within a few years, a dizzying assortment of technologies were being used by hundreds of producers. Along with fuel-driven internal combustion engines, there were electric and steam-powered automobiles. Recognizing the potential for this revolutionary technology, almost every bicycle and buggy manufacturer began producing automobiles. Vehicles from this period were one-off designs, expensive to purchase, operate and repair. Automobiles from this era were the playthings of hobbyists and first adopters.
Karl Benz is generally credited with developing the first production automobile in 1888. But even his initial production was a batch process simply making several identical copies of his gasoline powered automobile. Within this next era, the various experimental designs and alternate power systems became marginalized. The buggy builders exited the market, and the component manufacturers rose in prominence. While batch process manufacturing did help to make vehicles easier to acquire and made them more reliable, automobiles were still too expensive for the average consumer.
The major advancement that truly ushered in the modern era and made the automobile affordable for the average consumer was not a new development in product technology, but a change in manufacturing technology. This development was credited to Henry Ford when he began mass-producing the Ford Model T in 1908 using a moving assembly line. Henry Ford was a manufacturing engineer, not an automotive engineer. Ford was the first to develop a system that would produce high-quality and affordable cars. He experimented with car design and materials, focusing not on product innovation but on manufacturing processes that emphasized speed and efficiency. Several other manufacturers quickly moved to emulate Ford’s design and production methods. Correspondingly, the industry consolidated and matured. The number of vehicles produced rose rapidly, yet the number of auto manufacturers declined sharply.
So, what does this history lesson teach us about microgrid technology?
I would say that microgrid development and production techniques are about where automobiles were 120 years ago in the time of Karl Benz. Microgrid design is becoming more standardized and the technologies utilized are becoming less diverse. We have moved past the days when a dizzying assortment of technologies were being deployed by hundreds of producers. We have seen the exit of the “buggy builders” of the microgrid world, and the component manufacturers of batteries, inverters and control systems are rising in prominence. Microgrids have finally moved past the playthings of hobbyists and first adopters. This commonization of products and designs is making microgrids easier to acquire and more reliable. But they are still too expensive for the average consumer and microgrid sales are correspondingly disappointing.
I suggest that the next advancement in microgrid technology is not going to come from new product technologies. Now, we may be surprised by a new energy storage technology, a new power conversion system, or some revolutionary control system. But, more likely, we will continue to see only minor advancements in the existing products we see today. What the microgrid market needs today is the movement from one-off and batch development of microgrids to a production-built, all-in-one system — factory built, certified and ready to operate the day it is delivered. You are about to see a system developed that can produce high-quality and affordable microgrids. Manufacturers are beginning to shift from focusing on product innovation to focusing on designs, materials and processes that emphasize the speed and efficiency of microgrid implementation. As the total cost of acquisition drops, the number of microgrids deployed will rise rapidly and the number of system manufacturers will likely decline as well.
Tony Soverns is the chief technology officer at Go Electric, a Saft company, which develops customer side of the meter energy solutions that help facilities, communities and military bases be energy resilient and sustainable. Visit Go Electric to learn more.