Microgrids may be the future of the North American electric grid, but when will that future arrive – especially for the homeowner?
A team led by Ontario utility PowerStream is trying to find out with a new test project.
“A lot of the microgrid projects that you read about are typically large projects, hundreds of kilowatts, megawatts, running a whole university, a whole hospital, a whole military base,” said Mario Bottero, co-founder and president of RoseWater Energy Group, which provided the project’s energy storage hub.
Instead, the PowerStream project aims for “a true microgrid – micro – small, localized, specific” that can be scaled up to many homes or even buildings, he said in a recent interview.
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Located at PowerStream’s corporate headquarters north of Toronto, the initial phase is now in operation. It serves just seven kW of average demand from lighting, air conditioning, refrigeration and other common energy uses. The goal is to simulate what a house might draw in a microgrid. Power comes from a 17-kW solar array, a 1.8-kW wind turbine and a 35-kW natural gas-fired turbine. The system operates with lithium, lead-acid and sodium nickel chloride batteries. The microgrid can connect to the grid or island when necessary.
Phase two includes a level three car charging station powered by solar. Future phases may incorporate fuel cells and combined heat and power. The idea is “keep pushing the envelope and incorporate products that aren’t necessarily widely used now, and see how they work,” Bottero said.
The project is one of several ways Ontario is exploring aspects of microgrid. Canadian Solar recently opened a microgrid test center in Ontario, and the provincial government has a solicitation now on the street for energy storage. The province also has installed smart meters in most homes and small businesses and has shut down coal-fired plants and fostered solar through feed-in tariffs and other long-term contracts.
Mass market microgrids don’t yet offer the return on investment required – but it’s coming, according to Rosewater, which offers energy storage and management systems for utilities and the high-end residential market.
“We are talking to real estate developers here who are trying to incorporate solar into the mortgage, so that you can amortize it over 20 years. I think that is the logical progression, as well, for creating the microgrids,” Bottero said.
The company sees the rise of microgrids as a complement, not a disruption to the utility macrogrid – an increase in energy efficiency. Microgrid offers a way to better manage the demand-side – how homeowners or buildings use power, according to William Gotts, RoseWater’s CEO. “That is why RoseWater has focused on the residential aspect; we really feel like that is the future,” he said.
Utilities in many cases are resisting the idea of microgrid, especially in the US. Rosewater hopes to change the way utilities look at microgrid for the mass market, but acknowledges that transformation is at least a few years away.
“If we are successful in the market, we will change the way utilities do business. We have to do it organically. It has to be a slow process. It has to be a lot of proving what we say is true. That’s baby steps,” Bottero said.
So don’t expect a microgrid to be coming to your neighborhood quickly– but keep an eye on Ontario for what it might look like when it does arrive.
Other companies participating in the PowerStream microgrid trial include: General Electric, Enbridge, Enviro-Energy Technologies, Navigant Consulting, renewz sustainable solutions and SMA. More details, including a video, are available on PowerStream’s website.