Creative Partnerships Help Build Critical Infrastructure Resiliency with Microgrids

This week’s guest authors are Christina Briggs, Economic Development Manager for the City of Fremont, California, and Vipul Gore, President and CEO of Gridscape Solutions. The microgrid solution described here points to the benefits of collaborative planning and development to build resiliency for critical infrastructure and contribute to the goals of a truly Smart City.

Cities have a significant opportunity to lead by example when it comes to innovative energy solutions. But the pot sweetens even more when sustainable energy decisions also contribute to a City’s economic development strategy. In the case of Fremont, where clean technology is considered one of its largest industry clusters, public-private partnerships can promote the testing of new technology, help its local companies scale, and identify potential sustainability measures for City operations. Here’s how Fremont and Gridscape Solutions are crafting win-win scenarios.

The City of Fremont and Gridscape Solutions are teaming up to pursue a California Energy Commission (CEC) Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) opportunity. This state program funds technology demonstrations of reliably integrating energy efficient demand-side resources, distributed clean energy generation and smart grid components to protect and enable energy-smart critical facilities. This follows on a previously successful collaborative effort where Gridscape Solutions assembled a consortium of partners for a city EV charging infrastructure project, including the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Prologis, Delta Products, and the City of Fremont.

The proposed project consists of deploying a microgrid at three fire stations within the City of Fremont. The close proximity of Hayward Fault line to these Fire Stations, the maximum load capacity on the transmission line, and the need to reduce grid dependency satisfy the most important grant requirements of providing energy savings, increasing electrical infrastructure resiliency, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and demonstrating islanding from the grid for up to three hours. Using the combination of renewable generation and battery technologies, the microgrid project could save the City of Fremont approximately $10,440 per each fire station and reduce CO2 emissions by 22,176 pounds per station per year.

The proposed microgrid design will provide at least three hours a day of power to the fire station in the event of a utility outage. The microgrid is also capable of responding to signals to proactively and seamlessly disconnect from the grid by using state-of-the-art microgrid controls, and advanced load controls. The implementation of the microgrid also serves to balance PV generation supply, efficient energy storage and campus loads to achieve the City of Fremont’s net zero energy goals by maximizing PV electrical energy usage behind the meter. During a utility outage, the power distribution may be isolated from the utility at the point of service by a microgrid inter-tie protection relay.

The primary goals of the project are:

  • Island for up to three hours by disconnecting from grid
  • Reduce energy costs and CO2 emissions
  • Improve resiliency and reliability of fire station infrastructure using microgrid
  • Deliver the highest value to ratepayers and the utility by optimal configuration
  • Demonstrate innovation and environmental stewardship through the deployment of energy usage dashboards to the City of Fremont or CEC systems.

The priority status cities place on these facilities, combined with the tremendous innovation and market opportunity for companies in this space creates a win-win scenario. When cities leverage industry expertise in their own backyards, society stands to benefit.


A Critical Issue – Water Resiliency

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It took a drought of epic proportions to force the Australian nation to radically reform its water policies and practices. California is now in the fourth year of its own serious drought, with growing negative impacts to economies, communities, and ecosystems. While there’s great value in California adopting similar actions that Australia took to manage a dwindling resource, there are great challenges as well.

For starters, California’s water laws are irrational. Senior and junior water claims are based on the timing of gold rush era prospectors nailing pieces of paper to trees adjacent to water sources. Some industry experts estimate that it would take 30 years of full time work just to sort out the claims and hierarchies on water sources before an overhaul could be started. That would be a daunting task here and in other western states governed by similar claim precedents. But it gets worse. California’s water consumers are also irrational. In California, 90% of the state’s water is dedicated to agricultural use. Much of that agriculture is focused on water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa. If you’re wondering why a desert climate is producing crops that are better suited to regions with significantly predictable precipitation, you’re not alone.

At that December water conference, California officials seemed most interested in the physical improvements that could be mandated in building codes (such as rain catchments) but deflected questions on how legislation could change California water laws to encourage conservation and agriculture models more suited to desert climates.

There’s an additional complication. California’s primary source of water is winter precipitation that is conveniently stored in the form of snow. It’s very difficult to measure exactly how much snow falls in any given season and accurately predict how much of that snow will melt into useable water in the ensuing summer. Snow water equivalent describes the amount of water contained in snow pack. As you can intuit, dry snow contains less water than wet snow, and sometimes the differences can be as extreme as thirty inches of dry snow for one inch of water versus five inches of wet snow yielding one inch of water.

California’s snowpack, or lack of it, is not just an important source of drinking water. It is also a source of electricity generation in the state. A shrinking snowpack impacts the hydropower that can be generated. It’s a uniquely Californian take on that energy/water nexus, and it’s not a sustainable strategy. There’s a real lack of resiliency in the current water infrastructure that also impacts energy.

There are more available solutions to address hydropower reductions than potable water reductions. The electricity infrastructure is more amenable to optimization through ongoing applications of innovative technologies, policies, and financial capital.   More distributed generation plus energy storage can replace some hydropower reductions. But as far as water infrastructure goes, these systems are much more inflexible and much less optimized than their electric grid counterparts. It’s just the early days for deployment of Smart Grid technologies into water infrastructure in California and much of the rest of the USA.   But more than that, we’ll need smart water policies and innovations in financing the necessary water infrastructure upgrades to address critical resiliency concerns.


The Final Five Smart Grid Predictions – A Progress Report

I made ten predictions in January 2014 about Smart Grid and Smart City trends and changes that will occur between 2014 and 2020. Here is an update on the final five predictions. The first five were reviewed last week. You can review the full predictions here and here, and judge for yourself the quality of my crystal ball.

6.  Debates about the future of the social compact for electricity services and the socialization of electricity costs continue. The Reforming Energy Vision initiative includes the objective to “enable and facilitate” new business models for utilities, customers, and energy service companies. This is just the first state activity that will generate significant discussion about how to equitably balance distribution grid investments that accommodate and integrate more distributed energy resources (DER). Since it will take time to implement and then measure results from new business models, this debate is sure to continue for the next decade.

7.  EVs advance to 10% of the US car market. The current electric vehicle (EV) penetration in 2013 was just a bit over .5%. The falling costs of gasoline are putting additional pressure on EV manufacturers to reduce prices of zero emission vehicles to increase consumer adoption. However, utilities are now taking a more active role, as Edison Electric Institute members will start investing up to $50 million annually in EV service trucks and charging stations for consumers. The Department of Defense (DoD) is conducting pilots for vehicle to grid or V2G applications. Their first smart charging demonstration are exploring V2G performance, and they will also examine re-purposing used EV batteries for fixed energy storage.

8.  Resiliency measures also become part of the definition of a smart building. There are a number of federal, state, and non-governmental initiatives that address resiliency, and some critical infrastructure definitions include selected buildings. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is developing standards guidance for community disaster resilience, but this is focused on building materials and codes. Microgrids, DER and Zero Net energy codes and technologies can bridge the gap in existing resiliency initiatives for buildings. Microgrids are already in production as resources to maintain power to critical infrastructure during emergencies – one of the goals of the Borrego Springs microgrid.

9.  Nanotechnologies help propel solar harvesting efficiencies past the 50% mark, and by 2020 research scientists are aiming for 75% harvest efficiencies. The number of patents filed for innovations in nanotechnology using graphene have tripled in the past 10 years. The research pipeline contains single molecule thick sheets of graphene and molybdenum that can potentially provide 1000 times more power per weight unit of material than current commercially available solar cells. The fabrication of flexible solar panels is on the horizon, which can be wrapped around curved or uneven surfaces or reduced in scale, expand the possibilities for where solar can be deployed.

10.  There’s sufficient electricity production from renewable energy sources that we no longer talk about “renewables.” American grid-connected wind turbines have a combined capacity of 60,000 MW, projected to double by 2020. Solar is enjoying explosive growth. Energy storage solutions will “firm up” the intermittency of wind and solar and thus eliminate the last objections to reliance on renewables. It will just be a cheap and clean source of electricity without the price volatility of fossil fuels.

These final five predictions are well on their way to realization too, although the prediction about nanotechnology advances is admittedly a stretch goal. You’ll note that energy storage has a significant influence on the advancement of some of these predictions.  We’ll keep tracking these predictions and bring you periodic updates.


Great Progress on Smart Grid and Smart City Predictions for 2020

How much can change in a year? When it comes to Smart Grid and Smart City topics, the answer is quite simply – a lot can change. Here’s progress report on my ten predictions about Smart Grid and Smart Cities activity by 2020. The first five are featured this week. You can review the complete predictions here and here, and judge for yourself the quality of my crystal ball.

  1. California hits and exceeds its RPS objective of 33% renewable sources of electricity by 2020 – the most ambitious of all states with this calendar deadline. As of October 2014, the state’s three investor-owned utilities (IOUs) obtained 22.7% of their electricity from renewables, and are on track to meet the 2016 25% milestone. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) projects that solar alone will contribute 42% of the state’s total renewables generation. The state has about 245,000 rooftop solar PV installed now, and by 2017 the aggregated generation from these systems will approach 3,000 MW.
  2. Grid resiliency strategies take priority for investor-owned, municipal, and rural utilities. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has a number of initiatives in grid resiliency, and their clients are utilities. Governmental, commercial and residential interests build microgrids that are capable of delivering a limited degree of building self-sufficiency in energy. NYSERDA announced the first in the nation NY Prize, a $40 million competition to build microgrids and other local energy grids. New Jersey launched the Energy Resilience Bank – the first public infrastructure bank in the country focused on DER for energy resiliency. This bank is capitalized with $200 million for projects that harden critical infrastructure. Utility support for microgrids is growing as utilities like Con Ed see that the Reforming Energy Vision initiative presents an opportunity to redefine utility business models to accommodate new microgrid product and service offerings.
  3. As utilities consider grid hardening, cities redefine what being a smart city really means. Smart cities aren’t smart if their critical infrastructure relies on fragile transmission or distribution grids. Definitions abound for smart cities, but the lack of consistent standardized frameworks are serious obstacles to development of smart cities. For some states, notably New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, (states hammered by Superstorm Sandy among other weather events) a city is smart if it upgrades critical infrastructure and deploys distributed energy resources and microgrids for select community buildings and systems.
  4. Consumer intermediation threats abound for utilities. Investor guidance reports released earlier this year pointed out a number of threats to the existing regulated utility business model, and noted the potential for confrontations between tech giants (notably Google and Apple) and utilities in value-added services (specifically energy management services) to consumers. Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about solar generation, and companies like Solar City and Sungevity have capitalized on these trends to make it easy for consumers to build relationships with non-traditional energy companies.
  5. Standards that define how to integrate or grid-tie microgrids and other standalone generation and energy storage assets for bi-directional electricity flows to utility distribution grids are globally adopted. The existing IEEE 1547 standard currently used for DER such as solar PV requires that these assets must be de-energized if they are tied to the grid and it loses power. While necessary as a safety measure, it defeats the purpose of microgrids remaining up to power critical infrastructure or meaningfully contribute power back to the grid. The Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) started Priority Action Plan (PAP) 24 for microgrid operational interfaces. This PAP focuses on information models and interoperability and consistency of signals used by microgrid controllers. Another group called PAP 25 will encourage standards that harmonize financial data, as well as forming a new group focused on Transactive Energy. These are all critical steps to develop the standards that will govern bi-directional electricity and realize the full promise of the Smart Grid, as well as power smart cities.


There’s been real progress for the first five predictions and they are well on their way to realization by 2020. Next week I will review progress on the final five predictions.


Microgrids Can Serve Multiple Purposes With The Right Policy Frameworks

Remember the old beer commercial with the “tastes great….less filling” debate? Microgrids provoke a multitude of views in the USA.   For the Department of Energy, developing advanced microgrids holds the promise of building new electricity resources for customers, the community and the macrogrid. For the Department of Defense, microgrids deliver energy security for military bases and mobile operations. Massachusetts thinks of microgrids as enabling environments for regulatory reform. New York, in the midst of its initiative to redefine utility business models, considers microgrids as good platforms for distributed energy resources (DER). California, on the other hand, sees microgrids as crucial to supporting the integration of renewable generation into the grid.

Larisa Dobriansky, Senior Vice President, Legal, Policy and Regulatory Affairs for General MicroGrids has excellent perspectives on how microgrids can serve in these capacities. Based on her extensive knowledge of microgrid design and deployment around the globe, she notes that microgrids can become a third element in grid modernization efforts. Smart microgrids could help to contribute to a new flexible, resilient and transactive electric power value chain. Both upstream and downstream, smart microgrids could play a role in transforming our power system, using smart technologies to enable new functions and capabilities “end to end,” from source to sink.

Federal and State governments in the United States are funding pilots to assess how smart microgrids could be deployed strategically to harness cost-effectively the benefits of dispersed distributed resources and manage load; support markets for new resources; and apply information and communications technologies to advance intelligent distributed energy management strategies in developing new power infrastructure. However, sound policy enabling frameworks, at both the federal and state governmental levels, will be needed to support investments in smart microgrids – policy, legal, regulatory and institutional changes that can recognize and fully take into account the benefits and value that smart microgrid and distributed resource solutions can generate. To begin with, consistent definitions of microgrids and smart microgrids are needed.

Microgrids not only trigger different views of their primary benefits to a grid, microgrid definitions have been evolving too. A microgrid has traditionally been defined in the Smart Grid Dictionary as a small power system that integrates self-contained generation, distribution, sensors, energy storage, and energy management software with a seamless and synchronized connection to a utility power system, and can operate independently as an island from that system. Generation includes renewable energy sources and the ability to sell back excess capacity to a utility.

However, in developing economies, microgrids may be helping to eliminate energy poverty, and thus have a different degree of technological sophistication. The soon to be released 6th Edition of the Smart Grid Dictionary contains a new definition for a Smart Microgrid. It is a term used to differentiate the technological sophistication of a microgrid.   In developed economies with well-established grids, it is presumed that any microgrid embeds Smart Grid technologies. In the developing economies with immature grid infrastructure, a microgrid may contain distributed sources of generation, and energy storage but exclude the advanced communications overlay that makes a grid a Smart Grid.

As a side note, it is important to acknowledge that even in the case of off-grid rural electrification, “smart” (ICT) technologies could be deployed to help build smart clusters of villages through networks of distributed infrastructure consisting of local microgrid cells.

Larisa Dobriansky will be presenting some case studies in the Building Resiliency with Microgrids conference track managed by Christine Hertzog at European Utility Week on November 5. Join them there to learn more about the resiliency solutions that microgrids deliver on a global basis.


Energy Storage – Bright Future, But Challenges Ahead

The Energy Storage North America (ESNA) conference in San Jose, CA last week can be summed up in one word – optimism. The sanguine outlooks on market opportunities and trends were unanimous. Several vendors can’t manufacture their equipment fast enough to meet demand.

California is making the market for energy storage. The ninth largest economy in the world recognized energy storage systems as important technologies in electricity value chains with the passage of AB2514. The CPUC decision 13-10-040 set the regulatory expectations about utility-interconnected and behind the meter energy storage. States like California view energy storage as a critical tool to firm up intermittent forms of renewable generation. State policies in the Northeast USA encourage energy storage systems to deliver resiliency for grids and critical infrastructure. Of course, a credible argument could be proffered that Tesla is making a market for energy storage with its gigafactory in Nevada. The company plans to build 50 GWh in annual battery storage starting in 2017.   These combined influences are driving the growth of new storage technologies, services and financing mechanisms.

The comparisons to solar trajectory trends are well-known. Energy storage technologies are expected to rapidly decrease in price in response to increased economies of scale and expertise. Deployment numbers forecast fast growth – particularly in behind the meter solutions that focus on reducing electricity costs due to high demand charges.

But the energy storage ecosystem has to overcome two challenges that could have negative impacts on adoption rates. First, energy storage technologies are diverse. There are chemical and non-chemical categories of storage. There are many subcategories based on different elements such as lithium, zinc, sodium, or iron; and non-chemical storage ranges from pumped hydro to compressed air to flywheels. There is significant variety in number of charges, stability in different environmental conditions, and form factors. You can select an energy storage solution to ensure that your mission-critical devices or operations are not disrupted by power outages – a resiliency function. Storage can help maintain stable grid operations, a reliability function. Storage can reduce electricity use at peak time periods or avoid those demand charges mentioned above – a cost-savings function. The market places very different values on the potential uses for energy storage by function. There’s a lot of confusion that needs to be addressed with education to ensure buyers are making sound decisions that meet and exceed their expectations.

The second challenge is that early stage energy storage technologies and services are usually proprietary and customized engineering solutions. Deployments may include features that aren’t supported on a commercial scale, or may not exist in the future. All of these qualities increase the balance of system costs that go beyond the storage equipment purchases. There is no equivalent to a USB standard for physical connections of different energy storage solutions to the grid. The Byzantine variety of permitting processes and fees is a problem that bedevils the solar industry too, but it’s a brand new learning curve for the energy storage system integrators and installers. In essence, there’s too much complexity in the entire design, development and deployment process for energy storage systems, and it’s an area that’s ripe for innovation.

The good news is that vendors are working collaboratively to solve some of these problems. There’s a new industry initiative called the Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA) standard initiative that can help promote more of a plug and play environment. It would be interesting to see similar collaborative efforts between utilities to standardize on interconnection processes. Likewise, the irrationalities of municipal permitting processes should be replaced with national standards – just as we use the NEC (National Electrical Code) to define the safe design and installation of electrical systems in a uniform way across the USA.

The energy storage ecosystem has to rapidly mature, or suffer self-inflicted pain evident in inflexible, non-scalable, and proprietary solutions slowed down with non-standard processes. These challenges could reduce overall investment paybacks for grid scale and behind the meter deployments. Industry optimism must be tempered with pragmatism to create the right technology and policy frameworks that enable continued success to this important segment of Smart Grid solutions.