Microgrid Engineering Becoming a Macro-Profession

April 13, 2018
In this week’s Industry Perspectives, Doug Jones, of POWER Engineers, discusses how microgrid engineering is becoming a macro-profession.

In this week’s Industry Perspectives, Doug Jones, of POWER Engineers, discusses how microgrid engineering is becoming a macro-profession. 

I recently had an interesting conversation with a colleague about our work with microgrid engineering projects. A common theme emerged: Many of the bad experiences involved a lack of cross-discipline knowledge or, maybe, a lack of overlap with other engineers on the project.

Other engineers either didn’t know how the other components or systems in the microgrid worked together, or they just didn’t consider it.

At POWER Engineers, we work hard to facilitate cross-discipline training and experience. It became clear to us that “microgrid engineering” takes this to a new level. Microgrids present a new paradigm for power system engineers.

Being the analytical engineers we are, what did we do next? We went to the white board, of course. We mapped out in broad brush strokes the engineering disciplines of the macrogrid vs. the microgrid.  We broke down the macrogrid into:

  • Generation
  • Transmission
  • Substation
  • Distribution
  • Loads

The microgrid breaks down into:

  • Connection to the macrogrid (PCC – point of common coupling)
  • generation sources
  • Distribution circuits
  • Loads

The topologies between the macrogrid and the microgrid are, of course, fundamentally different. In the macrogrid, the transmission system is highly interconnected with a diverse mix of generation. Historically, loads are fairly isolated from generation. They are separated by substations, maybe sub-transmission and a distribution system. Although microgrids topologies are highly diverse, a generator and a load might be in the same room.

The topologies between the macrogrid and the microgrid are, of course, fundamentally different.

In macrogrids, generating plants run relatively autonomously, held together by the collective inertia of millions of pounds of rotating mass and the electrical grid that connects it. Microgrid generation requires tightly coordinated operation controlled by a carefully engineered master control system.

This has led to significant specialization of engineering tasks. Industry experts have successful careers focused on specific parts of the macrogrid power system. This specialization has led to well-developed standards and practices. This in turn has resulted in the successful deployment of the largest, most interconnected system ever built. Many consider it the greatest engineering achievement in history.

Effectively, we no longer engineer the macrogrid as a system. We are engineering parts of the grid. This is where microgrid engineering represents a paradigm shift. Every microgrid grid should be designed from the ground up.

The team tasked with engineering a microgrid needs to understand how the system will work as a whole, how the components work individually and how they must interact with another. While specialization is still valuable and necessary, even specialists will find they must continually learn how their part will interface in this carefully coordinated, highly variable environment.

My colleague and I concluded that engineering a microgrid requires broad experience, a strong grasp of fundamental power system performance concepts and a non-traditional mix of knowledge.  While no one engineer is likely to have all the knowledge across various protection, apparatus, control, design and communications disciplines, they need to know a little about each, be savvy in several and have good relationships with folks who can fill in the gaps.

As an industry, we need to encourage engineers to gain a breadth of power system performance knowledge. We must continue to covet the level of specialization that has made our industry successful, but even specialists must keep expanding their knowledge, and always move toward a big picture understanding of how power systems work.

We are looking forward to May when we can share more information about the complexities of microgrid engineering. See us in Chicago May 7-9 at Microgrid 2018 for more information!

Doug Jones is the SCADA and analytical services business unit director at POWER EngineersPOWER is a global consulting and engineering firm specializing in the delivery of integrated solutions.

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