Microgrid Procurement: How to Select the Right Partners from an Alphabet Soup of Vendors

July 6, 2021
Scott Kessler, Siemens’ head of microgrid strategy and sales, explains the pitfalls of inadvertently building a microgrid with incompatible components and how microgrid developers can beware.

Scott Kessler, Siemens’ head of microgrid strategy and sales, explains the pitfalls of inadvertently building a microgrid with incompatible components and how microgrid developers can beware.

Scott Kessler, head of microgrid strategy and sales at Siemens

Critics of Apple often cite as a significant drawback the fact that the computer and consumer electronics giant’s products don’t play nicely with other companies’ hardware and software.

But for the millions of Apple fans, the response is a resounding shoulder shrug. Why does it matter when Apple can serve all of your computing needs so that you are immersed in a seamless Apple ecosystem?

Microgrid developers and customers who have dealt with the many pain points of procuring, installing and integrating systems can only dream of an Apple-like ecosystem. Unfortunately for them, there is no Apple for microgrids … yet.

That doesn’t mean some microgrid vendors won’t try to convince you otherwise, but don’t be fooled. Eventually, the limitations of any one vendor’s microgrid products and software systems will be revealed. If those components aren’t vendor agnostic, the project developer will have a limited ability to build a microgrid that can evolve with new technologies and changing customer needs.

Many vendors means scope gaps that cost time, money and reputation

Because selecting the “Apple for microgrids” and its seamless integration isn’t an option, it would be nice to tell microgrid developers they can’t go wrong picking and choosing among the many vendors who can offer excellent equipment and systems.

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, that’s not true.

First, developers could pick equipment and systems that are not vendor agnostic, something that is all too often learned during a problem-filled installation and commissioning process — and that means time and additional expense to backtrack and solve the problems.

When a developer makes the wrong decisions regarding major equipment from vendors, such as the distributed energy resources (DERs) or the microgrid system control, the developer likely won’t know the consequences at first. Those consequences tend to remain hidden until they are at their most difficult to solve. This is what’s known as a “scope gap.”

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A scope gap occurs when there is disconnect between two parties that leads to a different project outcome than intended. Between the developer and vendors, these often emerge as gaps in understanding of project expectations. Scope gaps result from a lack of clarity around project goals and deliverables.

As an example of a scope gap, consider a common scenario in which a battery storage system provider wants to sell controls for its system. It’s unaware that the customer’s needs and the system complexity being built into the microgrid require a different type of microgrid control. A developer without deep experience with complex microgrids might not know the difference in control capabilities until the cost is already sunk into the battery controller.

Even veteran microgrid developers aren’t immune to falling prey to scope gaps. A skilled developer building a system in a new service territory for the first time might not have the research team to unearth that the local utility’s interconnection rules cap the size of the system permitted. Before it finds out, the developer could buy DERs from a vendor that deliver more generation than the microgrid can install.

How to assemble the right partners and products

The current state of the microgrid vendor market looks like a bowl of alphabet soup.

Hardware and software innovations are emerging rapidly from new and established vendors. In this environment, the most seamless option is for microgrid developers to choose vendors who offer hardware and systems, such as the microgrid control and generating assets, that can interconnect and function together regardless of the component manufacturer.

The microgrid system control is perhaps the most important procurement decision to ensure the microgrid can deliver customer expectations — when it comes online and in the future as new technologies emerge. Developers need to be aware of how controls for various systems compare. There are hardware, software and cloud-based software control options available, and controls expertise is needed to best choose the one that will serve project needs better than others.

By identifying a trusted partner with deep microgrid controls expertise, the developer and controls vendor can narrow the field of generating, electrical and systems providers to those that offer solutions that best fit the project.

By ensuring that equipment from various vendors integrates seamlessly and making a careful decision around the most critical piece of equipment — the microgrid system control — procurement decisions become a perfect patchwork quilt rather than a minefield.

Scott Kessler is head of microgrid strategy and sales at Siemens

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