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.


University Microgrid Manages Multiple Generation Assets

Combined heat and power (CHP) technologies are sometimes overlooked as important assets that can be deployed in Smart Grids and microgrids in North America. Also known as cogeneration, it is defined in the Smart Grid Dictionary as the production of electricity and useful thermal energy from a single fuel source, typically located at or near the point of consumption. The thermal energy is typically used for heating, cooling, or applied to specific processes.   CHP deserves more consideration in microgrid designs and deployments. Ongoing technology advances in combustion turbines result in much more energy-efficient equipment, and that means that the solutions are more powerful and occupy smaller form factors than in the past. That opens up more possibilities for installations within microgrids that are strategically placed to build infrastructure resiliency.

CHP technologies take a prominent role in one of the initial European microgrid initiatives, the Smart Polygeneration Microgrid (SPM) project installed in the Savona campus of the University of Genoa in Italy. The Savona campus is a research and teaching facility, and the SPM presents invaluable educational opportunities. Professor Renato Procopio, a researcher at the university, noted that the SPM serves dual purposes.   “First, the SPM satisfies part of the campus’s electrical and thermal demands, integrating a number of heterogeneous sources,” he noted. “Second, it moves the university’s power systems research beyond theoretical analysis and into experimental validation and verification.”

Polygeneration refers to the microgrid’s multiple sources of energy. There are natural gas-fueled boilers plus thermal storage, electrical storage in the form of batteries, renewable generation from solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar power (CSP) equipment.   The campus-based control room uses operational strategies provided by the University of Genoa. Leveraging a Microgrid Manager from Siemens, it delivers day-ahead predictions of energy production from renewable sources and provides realtime control of all the generation assets, including optimized charging and discharging of the batteries to align with the renewables contributions to the system.

The microgrid incorporates a microcosm of the electricity value chain (generation to consumption) with its inclusion of an energy management solution to monitor and control electric consumption in a student housing building. Some of the research addresses the social aspects of electricity consumption – students will receive realtime information about consumption to help them make more educated decisions about how and when to use electricity.

Installed in February 2014, the SPM is the first project in Italy that also focuses on interconnection to the distribution grid operated by ENEL Distribuzione, using smart meters to gain useful measurements about the power and energy balance of the microgrid. This data will provide an important base of knowledge for future deployments of microgrids as autonomous entities that can communicate with local distribution grid operators and provide ancillary services that could help in improving the quality of the electric energy services.

Renato Procopio will be presenting initial results of the University’s microgrid project in the Building Resiliency with Microgrids conference track managed by Christine Hertzog at European Utility Week on November 5. Join us there to learn more about the innovative solutions and array of benefits that microgrids are designed to provide.


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.


Building Infrastructure Resiliency Starts With Creative Problem-Solving

We have significant infrastructure problems in the USA. Long neglect of investment in infrastructure has left it crumbling around us. It is sometimes easy to witness in rusting bridges or potholed road surfaces. But too often, deterioration in electric, water and natural gas distribution systems go unseen until catastrophe strikes. California, right on cue, serves up a textbook example of a severe water grid failure. Last week’s water main rupture in Los Angeles culminated in over 20 million gallons of water flooding parts of the UCLA campus.  Compounding this failure, this massive waste of water occurred during the worst drought in modern California history.

Climate change delivers a fresh set of challenges to our aging infrastructure.  Many of those challenges must be addressed through relocation, replacement, or “hardening” of infrastructure threatened by rising waters (both coastal and inland), hotter temperatures, and more violent weather.   In other words, we desperately need resiliency in our infrastructure.  For instance, there are 22 wastewater treatment plants in the San Francisco Bay Area that are threatened by a 20 inch sea level rise, a very realistic projection given the loss of northern and southern polar ice sheets.  The specter of very large retrofit projects to make existing infrastructure and built environments resilient looms large across the USA and the rest of the world.

It’s time for a different approach to the traditional siloed problem solving practices.  Rather than solve one problem at a time, we need to think big and create interdisciplinary coordinated solutions to address infrastructure resiliency.  This is the classic systems engineering approach, which is discussed here as a smart way to resolve problems that cannot be addressed through siloed solutions.

Several excellent examples of large-scale systems engineering in action are available at this website.  Henk Ovink, Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, provided a recent overview of the initiative at the Dutch Consulate’s office in San Francisco. This public/private initiative was inspired by the obvious needs to improve infrastructure resiliency in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. The US government sponsored a competition of ideas to re-engineer and rebuild smarter infrastructure that could withstand similar storms in the future.

The scope of the challenges addressed in this enterprise are sobering. Seventy-five percent (75%) of the New York/New Jersey power supply is located in floodplains. The legacy built environments and infrastructure can’t always be replaced in a wholesale fashion, but must be modified onsite to accommodate requisite hardening (ie waterproofing or floodproofing). The winning proposals published at the Rebuild By Design site illustrate the real potential of system engineering approaches.

How do they do it? They avoided the traditional thinking and siloed approaches that encapsulate most infrastructure projects. The winning teams’ methodologies included best practices for complex organizational and operational challenges used in my consulting firm. First, they looked beyond the immediate problem and assessed the larger context of multiple related challenges and objectives.   Second, they considered short, intermediate, and long term perspectives to create an interdisciplinary problem definition. Third, they involved all the stakeholders in extreme collaboration in which the teams analyzed existing situations and processes. Fourth, they used multiple data sources and analytics to develop information that validated/invalidated assumptions and justified decisions. And finally, they built strong stakeholder consensus for the resulting resiliency solutions derived from this methodology.

The winning projects are funded through public and private sources of money. They are in the initial stages of planning and deployment, so it’s too early to have meaningful results on their efforts to build resiliency in vulnerable communities. But including resiliency objectives into all infrastructure investments can’t be a bad thing. As Henk noted, the rule of thumb is that every dollar spent on resiliency yields four dollars in benefits.

To ensure that we are getting the best value for our investments in Smart Infrastructure, policy-makers should encourage every grid or other infrastructure modernization project to be planned in the larger context of interrelationships with other infrastructure. Utilities and other infrastructure agencies should specify resiliency requirements in proposed infrastructure enhancement projects.  Investors should evaluate every project based on its overall ability to rebound from climate change impacts or other human-caused disruptions. There’s an important role for every stakeholder here. We have to rethink infrastructure from a resiliency perspective, so it makes sense to rethink our approaches to solving these challenges.


Four Important Lessons From the Borrego Springs Microgrid Pilot

There is a design and configuration practice called “graceful degradation” in telecom circles.  It diverts all communications functionality to a limited group of subscribers that have the most critical needs.  Microgrids present interesting possibilities to similarly support graceful degradation of the distribution grid through deployment at locations that are deemed most important for grid or community resiliency.

Borrego Springs was one of nine microgrid demonstration projects partially funded by the Department of Energy (DOE).  For this San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) project, additional funding was provided by the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the utility.  Vic Romero, Director- Technology Solutions & Reliability, provided an update to the project and discussed four important lessons as the utility gains new observations and experience on a daily basis.

The remote Borrego Springs community is served by a single transmission line that is subject to disruptions at times from weather and wildfire.  The relative fragility of this connection to the primary distribution system, coupled with a local substation and a proliferation of customer-side-of-the-meter rooftop solar made this location an excellent microgrid test bed for this possibility across a contained distribution grid.

As noted in my 2012 article, SDG&E put a real investigative focus on energy storage. The microgrid was configured to include substation energy storage of 500 Kw for 1500 Kwh plus 3 strategically-placed community energy storage units.  The utility anticipated that energy storage would firm the intermittency exhibited by significant numbers of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on specific Borrego Springs circuits. Energy storage has performed well, and sometimes exceeded expectations while providing a surprise or two. “We found energy storage to be very effective in dealing with rapid fluctuations,” stated Romero.  They are now planning to boost their energy storage capacity to 1.5 megawatts of power for a total of 4.5 mWh of runtime.

The microgrid testing also included islanding, using stored energy and two on-site 1.8 Mw generators to deliver electricity to address unplanned or planned outages.  The SDG&E engineers learned that operating storage in parallel with the local distribution grid wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  They had some challenges to resynchronize frequencies after islanding events.  However, the energy storage and generators became vital last fall when intense thunderstorms cut power to Borrego Springs’ 2,780 customers.  As SDG&E crews repaired power poles damaged in the storm, they were able to call on the Borrego Springs Microgrid for assistance, which used its local power generation to restore electricity to 1,060 customers, including the essential downtown business area and the local library, which is the designated cool zone for the community.  This is one of the first times in the nation’s history that a microgrid has been used to power a large portion of a community during an emergency situation.  This deliberate re-routing demonstrated that microgrids can mitigate grid disruptions and support community resiliency.  Microgrids should become part of any Smart Grid or Smart Infrastructure plan.

The project also tested a price-driven load management (PDLM) program that enlisted residential volunteers in Borrego Springs.  They were asked to be part of an experiment that sent simulated electricity price signals to Home Area Networks (HANs) and devices such as pool pumps, electric vehicles (EVs), and thermostats.  There were challenges in the technology integrations as well as enrolling volunteers.  The takeaway for SDG&E is that this “prices to devices” has to overcome some challenges to become successful on a wide-scale basis.  There’s no doubt that if a program is too difficult to implement and/or lacks benefits that are considered worthwhile to customers, then most people would sensibly conclude that participation is not worth the effort.  That’s a problem for product vendors, policy makers, and consumer engagement program specialists to tackle.

The most exciting lesson from this microgrid project to date is that the Borrego Springs microgrid could be used to energize the primary distribution system.  Traditional uses (such as they are for microgrids) dictate that a microgrid keeps all the power it produces or stores within the confines of its footprint.  This innovative use as an energy source to return power to the grid hints at new opportunities to engineer more resiliency into electric grids.  “Microgrids provide an excellent opportunity to maximize the benefits of integrating renewable energy while improving reliability,” stated Romero.  That possibility should interest utilities, regulators, and vendors and spark a fresh round of innovation to build upon this and the other knowledge gained from this microgrid demonstration.  For its part, SDG&E will continue to explore and experiment with the Borrego Springs microgrid.  Look for continued discoveries that will infuse utility planning and operations over the next few years.