Why this Solar Project Is Not Like the Others: Maryland’s MicroGrid Play

Oct. 17, 2013
Maryland is home to a new commercial microgrid, one of the nation’s first, but hardly its last as solar/battery storage begins to reveal its value to businesses and the larger grid.

Let’s face it, solar is becoming so prevalent, a new project announcement is kind of a yawn. But Maryland offered an exception this week when it unveiled a solar project that incorporates energy storage and creates one of the nation’s first commercial-scale solar microgrids.

Developed by Standard Solar and Solar Grid Storage, the 402-kW plant serves the corporate headquarters of Konterra, a sustainable mixed-use community in Laurel, Md.  With 1,368 panels, the solar canopy offers enough capacity to generate 20 percent of the building’s annual power. Governor Martin O’Malley dedicated the project in an official ceremony October 15, with speakers that included Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

What exactly makes this project interesting?

First, Konterra offers a preview of what’s likely to be the growing coupling of photovolatics and energy storage. In this case, the storage takes the form of  batteries. The system stores energy for use by the building and sells services into the wholesale power market.

Second, the project arrives about one year after Superstorm Sandy, the storm that will likely go down in history as spurring microgrid in the US, or at least in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, where multiple-week outages taught the value of back-up power.

The Konterra project functions as a microgrid in that it can island itself from the larger grid when a power outage appears imminent. So if the grid’s power lines begin to tumble – as they did during Sandy – the Konterra building remains isolated from the cascading failure and retains power for its critical needs: lights, computers, pumps, motors and the like.

“There is a lot of discussion right now and effort from polcymakers to find ways to encourage more storage on the grid.” said Tom Leyden, CEO at Solar Grid Storage, in a interview. “The duration of the outage during Sandy caused people to think about how we make our grid more stable and secure.”

The project earns revenue by selling grid regulation services to the PJM Interconnection. This is in keeping with Solar Grid Storage’s business model, which is to find a combination of revenue streams that make projects attractive to investors. The financial proposition is likely to vary by location. For example, while PJM needs regulation services, California is likely to favor a project for its ability to reduce demand charges, which are high in the state, Leyden said.

Konterra, PNC Bank and Solar Grid Storage financed the project with the help of the Maryland Energy Administration’s ‘Game Changer’ Grant. In addition to the solar panels and storage, the project includes two electric vehicle charging stations and expansion ability to add four more.

“We feel storage is the next big move in the solar industry,” Leyden said. “It is going to help multiple stakeholders and allow utilities and grid operators to increase the penetration of renewable energy.”

For Solar Grid Storage, even bigger things are ahead. The company plans to launch a 2 MW project in North Carolina with Dominion Power in the first quarter of 2014.

These projects are in keeping with what Navigant Research sees as growth ahead for energy storage and microgrid. Worldwide, microgrid revenue is now just under $10 billion and will reach $40 billion annually by 2020, according to Navigant, which pegs North America easily as today’s microgrid leader with 2,505 MW of capacity, followed by Europe with 508 MW and Asia Pacific, 387 MW.

In the US, the strongest microgrid push comes from California and the Northeast, according to Peter Asmus, a principal research analyst at Navigant and author of Market Data: Microgrid.  These states are boosting microgrid incentives and offering procurement models to encourage more energy storage.

Microgrids also got a push by FERC’s Order No. 755, which requires that grid operators encourage projects that deliver fast reacting services to balance power on the grid

Looking forward, Asmus sees data centers as a strong, potential commercial market for microgrids, along with remote hotels and resorts. Microgrids can already be found on many college campuses, hospitals, military bases and similar self-contained facilities that often have multiple buildings. More microgrids are being planned. Keep an eye on these pages for future developments.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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