By Henry Curtis
Microgrids are usually thought of as collections of buildings that have some generation capacity and can exist at least temporarily while discounted from the utility grid. That is, they are islandable.
Microgrids come in a variety of flavors. The Pearl Harbor model envisions the microgrid as backup to the utility grid. The Parker Ranch model envisions the utility grid as backup to the microgrid.
Most microgrids in operation today rely on fossil fuel and are thus sometimes referred to as vintage microgrids.
Microgrid News notes the confusion in terminology.
“Microgrids are a global phenomenon. Yet, a clear definition of what is and what is not a microgrid is still open to debate. The only government agency to define a microgrid is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which identifies a microgrid as:
‘A group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources (DER) within clearly defined electrical boundaries that act as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid. A microgrid can connect and disconnect from the grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected and island-mode.’
Navigant Research has broadened this widely accepted definition of a microgrid to include remote systems in its analysis. Remote microgrids are networks that are not typically interconnected with any utility grid or may interconnect with a highly unreliable grid; therefore, they operate in island mode for a majority of the time. It was these remote, off-grid systems that were first called microgrids decades ago.”
Microgrids are most commonly found at military installations, schools, hospitals, fire stations and other critical infrastructure facilities.
Beyond the smart grid is the smart building.
Some commercial facilities utilize a Building Automation System (BAS); a computerized network of electronic devices which monitor and control lighting (especially emergency lighting), air conditioning, heating and other mechanical systems.
Some buildings have their own energy generators ranging from rooftop solar to basement combined heat and power systems. Some have batteries.
A Forbes Magazine article highlighted the growth in building-based nanogrids.
“‘In many ways, nanogrids appear to be an even more radical rewiring and rethinking of the world’s energy future than microgrids,’ writes principal Navigant Research analyst Peter Asmus.
‘Nanogrids mimic the innovation that is rising up from the bottom of the pyramid and capturing the imagination of growing numbers of technology vendors and investment capital, particularly in the smart building and smart transportation spaces.’”
One issue facing HECO, MECO and HELCO is whether to build a utility-scale global Smart Grid and then allow, control and micromanage the development of microgrids and nanogrids within that architecture, or to watch the development of microgrids and nanogrids and then determine a transmission overlay that can provide support for these systems.
The former approach is all about HECO’s past: control, control, control. The latter approach is all about transforming the generation and transmission utility into an energy service provider.
The risk in either approach will occur in two to ten years. Microgrids and nanogrids may be able to supply electricity at rates far below the utility rate and will therefore spin off and permanently disconnect from the utility grid.
Related to the cost risk is the reliability risk. Medium sized microgrid systems are more resilient; they can better withstand and adjust to disturbances.
If one thing goes wrong with a macrogrid, a cascading blackout can ripple across the system.
The U.S. and Brazil have been impacted by large blackouts affecting a 100 million customers while India was impacted by a mega blackout in 2012 when 600 million customers were without power.
Electric architecture companies – Siemens, ABB, GE, IBM, Navigant, Aclara and Schneider – will survive and prosper regardless of whether the focus is on nanogrids, microgrids, macrogrids, or grid interfaces.
The issue facing HECO is how to survive in turbulent times when there is no clear path ahead, when technology is rapidly changing and when the public is clamoring about high costs and the inability to interconnect to the grid.
One approach is to rip out all of the old, inefficient oil and diesel driven generators and to replace them with fast reacting, modern, smaller gas driven generators to be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).
An alternative is to bypass the LNG Bridge and head directly into renewable energy resources and energy storage.
Hawai`i is the leading edge of the disruptive electricity storm sweeping across the U.S.
Maui is on the leading edge of Hawai`i. On Maui wind and solar can supply all of the power at certain times of the day.
The traditional cost structure, reliability requirements, grid architecture and utility business models are all in play.
Ron Binz is the former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and, more famously, President Obama’s failed nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Binz spoke at the Maui Energy Conference last spring and is a consultant to the Blue Planet Foundation in the Decoupling Docket.
Binz noted that electric utilities are famously slow-moving, risk-averse organizations. He credits Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy (2009-13), as the origin of a joke that Binz now tells audiences.
There’s these three utility executives, and they’re wringing their hands over their future. They decide they’d better end it all. So, they decide to jump in front of a fast moving object. They jump in front of a glacier — that’s their estimate of what a fast moving object is. The glacier killed them.
Today the electric utility business is at a crossroads. The future business model is highly uncertain. Disruptive technology is the name of the game.
Hawaii is like a boat caught in the middle of a ferocious storm. The emphasis is on surviving the next few years.
What lies beyond the next set of waves is unknown.
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