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.


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.


Disruptive Innovations Struggle with Broken Systems

A colleague working for a startup with an innovative solution for the US public safety sector recently gave me a status update on the sector, and dwelled on the difficulties for his company to find an entry point in this sector. He talked about how the procurement processes in small to large city governments were ill-suited to accommodating innovative solutions. “They are all broken,” said my colleague, summarizing the state of city procurement processes, although his terminology was more colorful but inappropriate to my editorial standards. The resources that created the requests for quotes and proposals were procurement process experts, but often unable to bend these rigid processes to accommodate innovative technologies or services that could be a perfect fit for the first responder agencies they represent. In other words, its tough to fit square pegs into round holes.

The issue of broken systems is hardly limited to procurement processes within the public sector for Smart Infrastructure innovations. It’s endemic in the Smart Grid sector, with many cash-poor startups failing to successfully endure the marathons that many utilities have made of their technology evaluation and procurement decisions.

The situation has to change. Utility grids are aging. The American Society of Civil Engineers noted in a report titled The Failure to Act, The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Electricity Infrastructure” that by 2020, the US electrical grid will need an average $75 Billion per year investment to upgrade its generation, transmission, and distribution systems. The situation is equally dire for city infrastructures – transportation systems, water and wastewater systems, and more.

We typically think of improvements only in the context of how things are accomplished now. To paraphrase Henry Ford, if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have answered “a faster horse” as automobiles were a luxury item unavailable to the vast majority of consumers. Henry Ford did not invent the car. He invented a way to make formerly expensive cars affordable for the mass market through a highly standardized and automated manufacturing process.

Disruptive innovations in Smart Grid and Smart Infrastructure technologies and services are square pegs. They don’t always conform to standard procurement processes. How can we improve existing city and utility procurement processes to accelerate Smart Infrastructure and Smart Grid investments? It’s a question that utility and city executives should ask themselves so their processes don’t become barriers to innovations that would improve their operations.

It’s time to break the existing processes with an aim to simplify and streamline them.   One eye-opening exercise would be for senior managers to try to navigate their procurement processes as outside companies. Perhaps they would see ways to reduce costs, reduce friction, and reinvent procurement to accommodate a wider range of solutions than those offered by vendors that have perfected management of procurement processes.


Is Data A Painkiller?

Can data kill your pain? The city of Los Angeles, California is hoping it will, at least where some data sources are concerned. Back in May, the city launched a new DataLA site that features data downloads on topics such as crime statistics and budget information, as well as easy to understand visualizations of key metrics at a separate portal called PerformanceLAcity.  A June hackathon encouraged developers to take these datasets and create solutions that improve city life. Projects focused on affordable housing, public transit, and spurred by a devastating statewide drought, apps to report water waste.

Code for America has similar objectives to enhance the quality of civic life on a broader landscape, organizing hackathons in over 130 US cities so far. Its fourth annual Summit occurred this past week in San Francisco. The non-profit organization places software developers, user interface designers, and data enthusiasts into projects to re-imagine, re-think, and/or redesign existing processes to optimize productivity, experiences, and satisfaction.

For many cities around the world, one of the most intractable problems is traffic congestion. It’s certainly one of the biggest problems for LA, where 65% of commuters are solo travelers. This sprawling metropolis, which installed the world’s first traffic lights in 1924, has ambitious hopes for innovative solutions based on their traffic data.

The data is collected by ATSAC (Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control) and city parking management systems. ATSAC, first rolled out to manage signal timing on the streets surrounding venues used for the 1984 Olympic Games, is now implemented citywide at over 4400 intersections with traffic signals. Street sensors monitor vehicle passage, speed, and congestion in one second increments. This realtime data delivers situational awareness to the ATSAC operations center to adjust traffic signal timings to reduce congestion. The ATSAC system has a number of measurable benefits, most specifically in travel times, CO2 emissions and fuel use. Any concomitant reductions in road rage haven’t been tracked, but that’s not as easy to measure.  On September 22, the city published an RFI (Request for Information) focused on that realtime ATSAC data. The objective is to learn who is interested in this data and what new information and valuable services can be derived with this data.

Imagine if electric and water utilities operated this way. If meter data, properly anonymized and aggregated into data sets to protect privacy was available for hackathons, more feasible solutions for residential rentals and multi-family housing might pop up – two markets sorely underserved by existing home energy management applications. The federal Green Button initiative has sponsored and participated in hackathons, most recently an event in August in San Francisco, and in September at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Kudos to the organizers, sponsors, and participants of these hackathons that take existing energy data sets and create new applications to address the event challenges. It would be very interesting to see utilities get engaged in hackathons. One starting point would be to consider what types of data and data sets could be made available to answer a wide range of their challenges.

Leaders engaged in smart city initiatives acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers when it comes to data manipulation and analysis, and welcome outside help via hackathons to optimize infrastructure, enhance services, and improve civic life. Could similar activities help utilities engaged in Smart Grid initiatives ensure that they are getting the most from their data? There’s no doubt that plenty of pain points could potentially be addressed with intelligent data visualizations and analytics. Maybe expanding the pool of solution contributors could accelerate development and deployment of painkillers.

Leaders engaged in smart city initiatives acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers when it comes to data manipulation and analysis, and welcome outside help via hackathons to optimize infrastructure, enhance services, and improve civic life. Some of that data impacts what they would consider mission-critical operations. Could similar activities help utilities engaged in Smart Grid initiatives ensure that they are getting the most from their data? There’s no doubt that plenty of pain points could potentially be addressed with intelligent data visualizations and analytics.  Perhaps expanding the pool of solution contributors, with appropriate controls for security and privacy considerations, could accelerate development and deployment of utility painkillers.



Smart Grid and Smart Buildings Share Same Disruptive Impacts

The annual IBcon event always delivers on thought-provoking discussions and fresh insights about the intersections of technologies, policies, and financial drivers in the commercial real estate sector. The Smart Grid itself is the convergence of IT and OT (operating technologies).  Smart commercial buildings – both office and multi-family residential – are experiencing a similar convergence of facilities management (the building analog to utility OT) and IT solutions.  Not surprisingly, convergence means disruptions for the status quo.

As noted in my previous blogs, buildings use 40% of all energy in the USA.  The National Academy of Sciences reported that if buildings fully deployed available energy efficiency (EE) technologies and programs, we could avoid construction of new electricity-generating plants in the USA until 2030. The good news is that the building sector is paying attention to the potential benefits of EE, demand response (DR), and distributed energy resources (DER).

Building owners and facilities managers care about top line and bottom line numbers to create a healthy NOI or net operating income. NOI is the income of a property after operating expenses, which include energy costs. A quick glance around the IBcon exhibit floor confirmed that heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) remains the biggest energy consumer in a building. It’s the low-hanging fruit with regards to energy management companies with solutions that can pinpoint when, how, and where HVAC is operating.   It’s a major revelation and operating expense reduction when a facilities manager learns that an errant command starts the HVAC system in an office building at 1AM instead of 7AM.   A simple adjustment can have a meaningful impact to this property’s NOI.

But like the grid itself, buildings are relatively dumb. The evolutionary and revolutionary drivers that are impacting the transition from today’s grid to tomorrow’s Smart Grid parallel the transformations from today’s structures to tomorrow’s smart buildings.

The same sensors and mostly wireless technologies that are the basis of numerous grid upgrades are disrupting buildings in similar ways. Building evolutions go well beyond M2M applications that deliver remote monitoring and control of building HVAC and lighting.   Leveraging policies that encourage DR and harnessing initiatives like OpenADR allow more buildings to participate as prosumers by automating DR transactions. More capital for EE upgrades is now available in the form of green banks and other innovative financing mechanisms for property owners and managers.

The revolutionary impacts to the building sector occur in DER. For instance, the Shanghai Tower incorporates wind turbines in its roof to generate enough power to provision the building’s exterior lighting.   The second tallest building in the world also deploys its own co-generation system to operate a number of building systems. That gives it some important resiliency from any service interruptions from the power grid. It’s the early days for fully integrated DER in buildings, and over time we’ll see more solutions that make them net zero or capable of sending electricity back to the grid.

There are other interesting parallels or similarities between the electric and commercial building sectors. For instance, both share these characteristics:

  • Fragmented markets in the USA. For the electric sector, there are over 3000 utilities and 50 state regulatory agencies plus federal agencies that have jurisdiction over utilities. However, building codes and permitting processes reflect “local control” distinctions down to the municipal and county level. If there’s one sector that would benefit from some reductions in process friction via standardization, it is the building sector.
  • Conservative and protective of the status quo. The building industry has not changed substantially in over 80 years. Construction techniques haven’t changed much for centuries with most buildings fabricated onsite. Utilities haven’t changed much since Thomas Edison.
  • Asset designs and configurations are built for the long term but disconnected from consumers. Utilities built grids with inherent limitations and fragilities that get in the way of consumer expectations and prosumer transformations. Building construction doesn’t always reflect usage, requiring expensive upgrades and changes to accommodate end user needs.
  • Data changes the way business is done.  Data volume, variety, velocity and veracity are disrupting traditional business processes and creating significant challenges in reskilling people to these changes.

Of course, there is one important distinction between these two sectors. That is that the commercial building sector is extremely competitive, not organized as a monopoly. Building occupants have choices for office and residential space, and base their decisions on multiple factors including cost. The fear of declining occupancy and losing tenants keeps property managers awake at night.   However, given the increased abilities for buildings to reduce energy requirements and generate their own electricity, the fear of declining customer bases and revenues may keep utility executives awake at night too.


The Final Five Smart Grid and Smart City Predictions for 2020

Last week my article proposed the first five of ten predictions for activities, trends and changes that will occur between 2014 and 2020.  To reiterate, 2020 is a milestone year for renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in twelve states.   It is also a definition of normal visual acuity, and it is a concise summary of hindsight.

We’ve seen so much significant change in the past six years and will see more innovations in technologies, policies and financial drivers that build smarter cities as well as smarter grids.   Here are the final five of my ten predictions of how much can happen in six years time, and give you ideas of how you can leverage these trends for your business and personal goals.

6)    Debates about the future of the social compact for electricity services and the socialization of electricity costs continue.  The first forward-thinking regulatory agencies are implementing policies that re-define utility business models and revenues for delivery of “electricity assurance” for commercial business continuity and residential quality of life services.  You can go off the grid, but expect to pay for the utility to be your electricity insurer – the fallback for electricity when your systems fail to deliver.

7)    EVs advance to 10% of the US car market.  Although sales have been slow to date, changes in building codes and more charging stations make EVs easier to own and operate.  However, the greatest motivator is money, as more and more vehicle to grid (V2G) service innovations create opportunities for EV owners to make money with their EVs.  Entrepreneurs focus on creating profitable second uses of EV batteries once they are retired from vehicle use ranging from conversion kits for home energy storage to being bundled into cheap, modular energy storage for critical governmental infrastructure.  EVs buck, rather than continue the depressing history of instant asset depreciation the minute cars are driven off the dealer lot.

8)    Resiliency measures also become part of the definition of a smart building.  There will be significant innovation in solutions that can be deployed in new buildings or retrofitted into existing building stock.  For instance, an elevator company just introduced the first solar-powered elevator system – one that can operate even during grid blackouts.  It includes battery storage so it operates at night too.  Just consider how this one change to building infrastructure can make a big difference for residents of high rises.  Parking lots and garages deploy PV solar.  There’s an estimated 115 square miles of parking in California that could generate almost 1.5 TW of electricity daily.  As solar energy replaces or supplements the electricity coming from distribution grids, utility revenues plummet even more precipitously.

9)    Nanotechnologies help propel solar harvesting efficiencies past the 50% mark, and by 2020 research scientists are aiming for 75% harvest efficiencies.  Advances in materials – such as quantum dot solar cells, melded with nanotechnologies – deliver more electricity in reduced spaces.  Advances in manufacturing processes follow previous history, and solar farms replace existing technologies with cost-effective new equipment and produce more power without expanding their footprints.

10) There’s sufficient electricity production from renewable energy sources that we no longer talk about “renewables.”  We talk about wind, or solar, or geothermal, or hydro, but as distinct energy categories instead of being lumped into one catchall category.  In the US, coal is relegated to the ash heap, and toxic coal ash heaps become the focus of environmental cleanup efforts.

If you’ve been paying attention, you noticed that there’s a significant emphasis on resiliency in my ten predictions.  Our interconnected economies and societies have an irreplaceable reliance on energy and communications infrastructure.  How we proactively plan or reactively scramble will make for an interesting next six years and beyond.