The Future of Microgrids & Cleaner Locally Managed Power
by Andy O’Brien
Thursday, August 3, 2017 6:51 AM
" “In New York, California and many other states, strong and thoughtful regulators are starting to challenge the legacy utility business model and warning those companies to evolve or die.” "
Smart grid conceptual abstract (Photo by Shutterstock)
In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy left a trail of devastation across the Northeast, killing 157 people, destroying thousands of homes and knocking out power to millions of customers. But the campus of Princeton University only lost power for 20 minutes before a powerful natural gas turbine fired up, producing enough heat and electricity for 12,000 people, according to the university. Soon, police, firefighters and paramedics set up a staging area on campus for emergency relief operations and the university opened a hospitality center for storm-weary residents to charge their phones and use the wireless Internet connection.
“For a day and a half, we had to generate everything the campus needed,” said Ted Borer, Princeton’s energy plant manager, in an interview posted on the university’s website. “We didn’t know about Hurricane Sandy 20 years ago [when the microgrid was first established], but we knew there are things that make the [utility-company] grid unreliable.… Now, we can run the campus as an electric island in times of crisis.”
Princeton is one of the few places in the nation with a microgrid — a localized grouping of on-site electricity generators that is capable of operating in conjunction with the traditional electric grid or disconnecting from it and running autonomously as an electrical island. Microgrid operators can actually adjust how much power it takes in from the main grid depending on how much electricity prices fluctuate throughout the day. When the demand for power on campus is high or grid power is cheap, it can draw electricity from the main grid. But when campus demand is low and its solar panels are producing more electricity, it can sell power back to the grid. Although microgrids are relatively rare, they’ve been around a while, said Travis Wood, the vice president of Franklin Electric subsidiary Grid Solutions in Saco, at a July 20 presentation at Southern Maine Community College in Brunswick sponsored by the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech).
“Everyone talks about [microgrids] as if it’s a new concept,” said Wood. “It’s been around for ages, but from a commercial perspective I believe it’s still in its infancy stage and that’s evident by who the early adopters are.”
These days, microgrids are generally smaller-scale projects confined to university campuses, research facilities and military installations. But with improvements in smartgrid technology and the cost of distributed energy resources (DER) like solar panels, demand-response systems, smart appliances and battery storage devices plummeting, microgrids are starting to look like the wave of the future. Although renewable energy provided only 17 percent of electrical generation nationally in 2016, about two-thirds of the new generators installed in 2016 were powered by renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).
“Between the demand growth, replacement power for [existing power plant] retirements and decarbonization efforts, they’re anticipating $17 trillion is going to be invested in the grid in the next 20 years,” said Wood. “And while renewable energy is still a small part of the energy mix, this is where all of the investment is.”
And given the intermittancy of wind and solar, the grids of the future will need to be smarter and more efficient at using and storing that energy. Proponents of microgrids argue that the technology allows for better energy efficiency, improved grid reliability, and the ability to deploy smaller on-site “behind the grid” generators with a cleaner environmental footprint. They also reduce the need to build more expensive transmission lines from the main grid to meet high electricity demand during a few peak hours a year when summer visitors flock to Maine and air conditioners are running full blast.
The Brunswick Landing Microgrid
Currently, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA), a quasi-municipal corporation, is also in the process of building a microgrid at Brunswick Landing, with hopes of attracting tech innovators to the the former Naval air base. Since MRRA took over the 2,100-acre facility in 2011, 125 customers — including the Swedish medical device maker Mölnlycke Health Care, outsourcing company SaviLinx, the Brunswick Executive Airport and a branch of Southern Maine Community College — have taken up residence there. One of the MRRA’s primary aims is to establish a renewable energy center on campus, explained public works and utilities manager Tom Brubaker at the E2Tech event on July 20. And part of that vision, he said, is to convert the site’s existing electrical distribution system into an intelligent microgrid.
“We want our grid to be reliable and resilient. Businesses today that are technology dependent expect that distributed generation on-site,” said Brubaker. “We think we can draw down their electricity costs. A smarter grid here will give us the ability to … lower our capacity charges, lower our demand charges and drive down energy costs. And at the end of the day, when we’re fully up and running as a smart grid or intelligent grid, companies will be able to plug their technology into our grid and test them.”
Currently, MRRA operates the utility system on the site similarly to the way a mobile home park does, purchasing electricity from local providers — in this case wind power from Constellation NewEnergy — and distributing it to tenants and businesses on the property at the same voltage. Brunswick Landing also has a 1-megawatt anaerobic digester that runs on methane gas generated by municipal sewer sludge and plans to launch a 1.5-megawatt solar array this year. MRRA has also brought in the Portland applied-science engineering firm Introspective Systems LLC to design its smart-grid architecture to enable the deployment of distributed power sources throughout the system, such as energy storage, demand-response systems, smart appliances, solar panels and other power sources.
“There’s not a lot of systems [like Brunswick Landing], other than college campuses, but they don’t really bill [customers] because they have one meter and pay for all of the power,” said Introspective Systems CEO Kay Aikin at the E2Tech event. “There’s not a lot of situations like MRRA in the country.”
Aikin said her company is working on a plan to install artificial intelligence throughout MRRA’s grid to make energy management decisions in real time. She said the company uses similar technology in its work with MIT on managing multiple flying drones at a time as well as several self-driving cars navigating in traffic to avoid accidents. The company envisions an interconnected microgrid infrastructure close to the end-use power customers rather than at power plants or along transmission lines and equipped with devices that allow power systems to ramp up or ramp down based on pricing signals.
“So a battery may say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a full-up charge. For the next two hours, I’m going to put power onto the grid that will lower the demand charges from CMP,’ ” said Aikin. “At the same time, the air conditioner down in SaviLinx may say, ‘You know it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, people are going to start to go home. I can let the set point go from 72-74 and nobody’s really going to notice.’ ”
She said it will likely take about two years to complete the simulation work before the company is ready to implement the technology at Brunswick Landing.
“Artificial intelligence is very emergent, and the problem we have is we don’t know how it will work,” she said, adding later, “We don’t have to be afraid of the Terminator. The joke around the office is that Arnold Schwarzenegger will break through the wall someday and probably try to kill us because we designed something that went rogue.”
But all presentators at the event agreed that lawmakers and regulators need to establish a regulatory framework to allow smart microgrid technology to flourish.
“It’s not a technology problem. We can do the technology,” said Aikin. “It’s going to be allowing real-time pricing…. The legislators have to get a handle on this and realize that in order to have the choices for consumers, we’re going to have to have more real-time pricing, responsive pricing and also locational pricing.”
She added that the price of power should really depend on its location and the particular needs of an area, as the price might be higher or lower based on what is on the grid. She argued that the current standard electric rates are not incentivizing innovation.
“This is going to allow new cost recovery, and I can see a lot of people in the energy industry are going to have to change their business model,” she said. “They’re going to have a lot of new business models.”
Utilities & Innovators Face Off
And certainly this new decentralized energy model does present a threat to the more centralized, regulated monopoly utilities like Central Maine Power and Emera Maine. While investor-owned utilities earn their revenue from building and managing wires, poles, transformers and transmission lines, microgrids decrease the need to transmit power from far away power plants. Edison Electric, a national association of all of the investor-owned utilities, has identified these technological advancements along with innovations in distributed energy as “disruption challenges” that present financial risks to its members. At the same time, utilities have openly embraced distributed energy resources as long as they can control and profit off of them.
Brian Conroy, director of Network Projects & Initiatives at CMP’s parent company Avangrid, told the E2Tech audience that the company is currently working with the state of New York to develop standards for the grid of the future.
“Distributed resources are not a problem. They’re a solution,” said Conroy. “But they’ve got to be integrated into the system. So my dream is that they provide and we end up developing a regulatory market where they’re valued and included in optimizing the grid. They can make it more effective, more resilient and more efficient.”
Both Wood of Franklin Electric and Aikin agreed that there will still be room for utilities like CMP and the regional grid operator ISO-New England in the future, but that the electrical landscape will be more decentralized. Wood said his company is working out in California, where utilities are fighting the introduction of distributed energy resources (DERs).
“They’re able to generate a profit with retros, new transformers, wires and substations, but when adopting DERs, they’re actually losing money because customers are purchasing less electricity from them,” he said.
He noted that the California Public Utilities Commission is working on a pilot project to incentivize utilities with rebates to adopt DERs like microgrid projects.
However, Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of solar company ReVision Energy, says he has “no reason to believe that clunky, conservative, slow CMP” will be better at aggregating and dispatching distributed on-site storage than an Amazon, Google or other innovative tech company. He noted that although the Portland company GridSolar has saved the state millions of dollars by deploying distributed energy projects on the Boothbay peninsula as an alternative to building an expensive transmission line to meet summer peak demand, CMP worked hard to defeat a proposal by GridSolar to coordinate non-transmission alternative energy projects across the state.
“I believe the utilities are very clearly on the wrong side of history and in spite of their significant regulatory and legislative might, they are only delaying the inevitable,” he said. “In New York, California and many other states, strong and thoughtful regulators are starting to challenge the legacy utility business model and warning those companies to evolve or die. In Maine, where CMP has taken advantage of weak regulators appointed by their lapdog of a governor, they have won some short-term battles. But the arc of the universe is long and they are, at the end of the day, on the wrong side of history.”
GridSense (INCON) collaborating with Introspective Systems on a groundbreaking Microgrid project at Brunswick Landing
Introspective Systems wins $987K grid grant over three contenders
Kay Aiken, CEO of Introspective Systems LLC of Portland, said the company recently won a $986,802 Phase II grant from the federal government to test its system on a microgrid. It will use real-time pricing triggers to reallocate electricity where it is needed.
Software company Introspective Systems LLC of Portland said it has won a $986,802 Phase II grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for additional work to develop complex software frameworks that can help small energy grids reallocate resources based on price triggers.
Introspective CEO Kay Aiken told Mainebiz the company heard it won the award on June 20. The DOE grant, administered through the Small Business Innovation Research program, runs for two years. It follows a $146,683 Phase I grant the company won against 24 contenders in July 2016 and that ran until March 13, 2017.
The Phase I grant involved the company designing an architecture for devices such as household refrigerators to attach to the electric grid, with the aim for the DOE to eventually have a more robust national electric grid. The project is part of the DOE's Grid Modernization Initiative.
"In Phase II we will be testing the stability of a microgrid using real-time pricing at the distribution level," Aiken said.
The work is based on the fact that every part of the electric grid has different pricing based on the load of each location. If one area has a large load, or electric demand, the electricity price increases. Aiken's company intends to write algorithms, or sets of rules that can be used for problem-solving by a computer, that can trigger microgrids in lower priced locations to send their electricity to the higher priced, higher demand locations to even out the total load on the electric grid.
While initially Introspective is simulating how the price triggers would work and what their impact on the rest of the grid will be, Aiken said that eventually the DOE would like to use them countrywide.
Testing the software
"The idea is to control energy and to lower the peaks in the system," Aiken said. "The first step is to use our software on campuses like Brunswick Landing, but the end result is to roll it out into the national grid."
Introspective is collaborating with other partners while performing the simulations at Brunswick Landing, which buys power from CMP but also has a microgrid. For example, French distribution automation electrical hardware manufacturer Schneider Electric, which has an office in Boston, is providing $50,000 in in-kind engineering support for the project. Other partners offering in-kind support or subcontracting are the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, Village Green Partners (which built a bio-digester generator at Brunswick Landing), distribution automation and sensor manufacturer INCON of Saco, and ReVision Energy of Portland.
Introspective, founded in 2010, makes software technology known as Agoric Grid Control. Agoric comes from "agora," the Greek word for marketplace. The technology will allow for gateways, or smart meters, to be built to trigger electricity to move about the grid when certain price points are hit.
Introspective Systems software is cutting-edge, Aiken said, as it uses fractals, mathematical equations that describe geometric figures, each part of which has the same character as the whole. That means a miniature electric grid in one house could be attached to five houses with similar grids, and that a ring of grids could in turn be attached to larger amounts of houses with grids and so on until all eight national grids and their components tie together. That way, if one house or group of houses is in a blackout, nearby grids could automatically sense the lack of power and send electricity their way.
The next stage in the company's research would be to test it in computers functioning within a microgrid.
Aiken said SBIR grants are difficult to get. Phase 1 required a 45-page proposal and 128-page final report, while the Phase II proposal was 65 pages.
I am excited to announce an important change at INCON Power Reliability Systems. As a division of Franklin Electric Co., Inc., we will begin adopting Franklin Electric as our company name, on March 17th, 2017, and operate as the Grid Solutions division of the company. This name change is a result of an extensive rebranding effort designed to mirror the recent success and transformation of our organization.
Franklin Electric (franklin-electric.com) is a global leader in the production and marketing of systems and components for the movement of water and fuel. Recognized as a technical leader in its products and services, Franklin Electric serves customers around the world in residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial, municipal, and fueling applications.
Over the past few years, our Grid Solutions products have evolved amidst a dynamic, ever-changing industry. During that time, we have experienced tremendous growth, allowing us to further develop innovative capabilities across all spectrums of our advanced remote monitoring solutions, while continuing to embrace a customer-centric approach.
In July of 2016, we acquired the assets of GridSense Inc., a corporation specializing in monitoring solutions for distribution transformers, overhead and underground distribution lines, and other hard-to-reach assets.
Both INCON and GridSense will continue as Grid Solutions product brands, now sold through Franklin Electric.
Our contact information and street addresses will remain the same. The address of our website is now franklingrid.com.
Vice President, Grid Solutions
mobile: (207) 298-2098
Saco, ME – November 16, 2016 - INCON Power Reliability Systems, a subsidiary of Franklin Electric Co., Inc. (NASDAQ: FELE), won its first ever R&D 100 Award for the newly developed OPTIMIZER3, a complete performance monitoring system for high voltage substation circuit breakers. Widely known as the ‘Oscars of Innovation’, the R&D 100 Awards are an international competition that recognize the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year.
The 2016 R&D 100 Awards banquet took place on November 3, 2016 at the Gaylord National Harbor & Resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where the leaders of science and technology industries were honored for their innovative, high-tech products and processes.
Travis Wood, Director of INCON, commented, “This milestone achievement is a first for both INCON and FranklinElectric, and a testament to the relentless hard work and dedication of our engineers. One of the primary functions of our newly developed OPTIMIZER3 is to monitor the SF6 gas pressure in high voltage circuit breakers. While SF6 gas is an excellent electrical insulator, it is also one of the most potent greenhouse gases. This breakthrough innovation will help transform the electric utility landscape, granting utilities access to real-time information and ultimately reducing SF6 emissions.”
Innovation is one of the five core values at Franklin Electric. We evaluate and develop new technologies into our existing products, services, and processes to continuously improve the customer experience. We strive to be a complete solutions provider and our drive to innovate is at the core of what we do.
INCON specializes in advanced remote monitoring solutions for high voltage circuit breakers in substations, load tap changers found on large power transformers, distribution transformers, overhead and underground distribution lines, and other hard-to-reach assets.
Pictured (left to right): Travis Wood (Director, INCON) & Randy Boucher (Director, Engineering)
On August 1st 2016, INCON was nominated as a finalist for the 2016 R&D 100 Awards for its new circuit breaker monitor, the OPTIMIZER3.
These prestigious "Oscars of Invention" honor the latest and best innovations and identify the top technology products of the past year. Since 1963, the R&D 100 Awards have identified revolutionary technologies introduced to the market. This year's R&D 100 Winners will be announced at the annual black-tie awards dinner on November 3rd at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington, D.C. This is a first for both INCON and its parent company, Franklin Electric.
Whitepaper: New Method for Drying SF6 Insulated Substation Assets
July, 12 2016 Franklin Electric Co., Inc. (NASDAQ:FELE) announced today that it has completed the purchase of the assets of GridSense Inc., a Colorado corporation, specializing in advanced remote monitoring solutions for distribution transformers, overhead and underground distribution lines, and other hard-to-reach assets. GridSense products will now be sold through INCON Power Reliability Systems (PRS), a wholly owned subsidiary of Franklin Electric.
Travis Wood, INCON Director, commented:
"GridSense products are adaptive and easily retrofit to legacy assets. This niche is very familiar to us and fits with our mission. In addition to expanding our monitoring offering within our core utility substation markets, the product range gives us access downstream toward the end customer where there is excellent growth potential over the next several years."
INCON specializes in advanced remote monitoring solutions for high voltage circuit breakers in substations and load tap changers found on large power transformers.
The 2015 Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence will be presented by the Governor and the Acting Commissioner in a ceremony at INCON offices in Saco. INCON was founded in 1978 and is currently the leading developer and manufacturer of intelligent online monitors for the power utility, hydroelectric and industrial markets. The company's engineers have designed a monitor that detects leaks of SF6 (the most potent greenhouse gas) far earlier than any existing systems. This innovation will help protect the environment not only in the United States, but also on a global scale.
The Governor's Environmental Excellence Award program was created to honor businesses, not-for profit organizations, public entities and new ventures for their extraordinary efforts to protect and improve Maine's environment.