Microgrids: Making way for customer control and renewable energy integration

Microgrids: Making way for customer control and renewable energy integration

Microgrids are present and providing value in today’s grid. They can be found in hospitals, mines, industrial facilities and cities, as well as on university campuses. Microgrids are revolutionizing customer service, shifting utilities from being providers of electricity to being energy services companies. They enable greater integration of renewable energy generation and energy storage devices, not to mention greater load flexibility. Furthermore, microgrid solutions provide opportunities for greater consumer participation in the energy sector.

Utilities are currently using microgrids to test and deploy smart-grid technology. In fact, Navigant Research expects utility distribution microgrids to grow from $2.4 billion in revenue annually in 2014 to nearly $6 billion in annual revenue by 2023 as more and more utilities embrace them as a solution, rather than as a threat.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Woodstock Hydro’s Whites Lane microgrid installation on a field trip organized by Women in Renewable Energy, a professional development network that seeks to advance the role of women in the energy sector. Jay Heaman, manager of operations at Woodstock Hydro, gave us a presentation and tour of the installation.

A microgrid gathers together various technologies, including energy storage, smart meters, renewable energy, smart controllers, inverters, electric vehicles and loads. The Whites Lane microgrid is a grid-connected project—that is, it does not couple/de-couple from the grid. Woodstock Hydro is trying to support a cluster of customers. Renewable energy and energy storage are used to support the home—or the many homes and businesses in a cluster—in this definition of a microgrid.

Woodstock Hydro Whites Lane microgrid system. Source: Lynda O’Malley.
Woodstock Hydro Whites Lane microgrid system. Source: Lynda O’Malley.

The Whites Lanes microgrid project is a Smart Grid Fund project led by eCAMION with technology partners including:

Further technology components include OutBack Power inverters and charge controllers, off-the-shelf equipment that manages the control system. They control the storage and solar panels, and convert what is not being used into alternating current to push out to the grid.

It’s through this combination of technology—along with import/export intelligence gained from data collection and analysis—that, at the end of the project, three key objectives will be realized for Woodstock Hydro: customer control, power-system flexibility and adaptive infrastructure.

Jay hopes that projects like this one will spur on further projects and greater adoption.

“We cannot afford to not innovate,” he says. “Utilities need to see renewable energy and distributed energy as opportunities.”

Woodstock Hydro’s Whites Lane microgrid solar garage. Source: Lynda O’Malley.
Woodstock Hydro’s Whites Lane microgrid solar garage. Source: Lynda O’Malley.

The microgrid: A gateway to the “prosumer”

There are two paths utilities can take in response to the rise of renewable and distributed generation, electric vehicles, accessible energy data, greater efficiency and conservation, and the energy storage technologies and solutions now available (see the Rocky Mountain Institute report “The Economics of Grid Defection”). The first path is an integrated grid, where a utility incorporates and becomes part of the future energy system. The second path is the large-scale defection of utility customers. Jay wants Woodstock Hydro to take the first path: the integrated-grid path.

The White Lanes microgrid project is testing that future, providing Woodstock Hydro with the data and best practices required to enable this future scenario.

The data piece

Conservation is critical to a distributed, renewable future. A utility begins to best manage its load when customers start utilizing their data to take actions that can save them—and the utility—money. While Woodstock Hydro is not participating in Ontario’s Green Button pilot, it is watching it closely.

For now, Woodstock Hydro’s customers can use their own smart meter data to find cost savings opportunities and increase their energy literacy. Solutions like GOODcoins and Eyedro, among others, are currently available to Ontario utility customers. Since I live in a condo and do not have the opportunity to see how these applications work, Jay let me play around with his Eyedro account. (I’ll let you in on a secret: He’s probably more energy efficient than you are.)

MyEyedro shows users how much electricity they are consuming and how much money they are spending on electricity over the course of the day compared to a personal average. The application also converts users’ energy savings into equivalents, such as carbon dioxide emissions or how many smartphones you could charge with that savings, for example.

MyEyedro. Source: Eyedro Green Solutions.
MyEyedro. Source: Eyedro Green Solutions.

For more on Eyedro, check out the company’s profile in our report on the connected home.

Eventually, perhaps in future iterations of the Whites Lane project, a customer could hook up to the microgrid system through his or her smart thermostat, such as ecobee, Nest or Zen (which is powered by MMB Networks). (See more on MMB Networks and ecobee in the “Connected Home” report.) The smart meters in the Whites Lane microgrid are bidirectional, meaning they measure both ways and are mined for data every day by their metering backend. Presently, though, the smart meter data remains hourly.

To top it all off, the Whites Lane microgrid system also collects weather data to assist in load management, as well as to forecast consumption and renewable energy production.

How can a small utility handle and take advantage of all of this data?

Survalent Technology, a real-time smart-grid management system provider based in Mississauga, is helping Woodstock Hydro to figure out the data analytics and control sides of its microgrid system.

Data comes in from the weather sensor, power-quality meter, microFIT solar installation, smart meters (from Elster), electric vehicle charger, distribution transformer and energy storage system (lead acid for now and eCAMION’s lithium ion later this year). Survalent then takes the data from all of these system components and aggregates it in one place.

“We then use our microgrid controller algorithms to analyze data and make control decisions in real time,” explains Young Ngo, the executive vice-president of Survalent.

In this way, Survalent is able to optimize the microgrid’s performance. With the intelligence gathered and gained from data from various systems and at various intervals, Survalent provides an Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS)—an integrated platform solution including SCADA, outage management and distribution management—to utility customers. The company currently has over 500 customers in 30 countries, and approximately half of Ontario’s local distribution company utilities use its ADMS product.

“Microgrids, renewable energy and distributed generation have positive momentum in the province through smart-grid funding initiatives,” says Young. “This [project] is a logical extension for vendors like us to engage in these pilots and demonstrations to better understand the needs of our customers, enhance our solutions and share the knowledge we gain here to our customer base.”

This is customer value development 101, and something eCAMION also aims for, as we’ll see next.

Storing today’s energy for tomorrow

As previously mentioned, eCAMION led the Smart Grid Fund application for the Whites Lane microgrid. Phase 2 of the project is complete and the 20-killowatt-hour, four-module lithium ion battery system will be installed by September 2015.

“We are trying to right size an energy storage solution for smaller utilities to develop a scalable storage solution for different customer groups and customer applications,” explains Nicholas Fincham, sales and marketing director of eCAMION.

“For a small utility, system sizing ranges from 20 kilowatt-hours up to 50 kilowatt-hours. In the case of Woodstock Hydro, we are at the smaller range, connecting 16 residential and commercial customers, and six buildings,” he says.

Projects like the Whites Lane installation provide companies like eCAMION with the opportunity to fine-tune their solutions. eCAMION will provide a cabinet and control system for the Woodstock Hydro storage system. These controls will be integrated with the rest of the microgrid components and Survalent will analyze the data from all of the components in a subsequent phase of the project. It will likely be early 2016 when the data piece will be complete.

Currently, Woodstock Hydro has three major cabinets. Jay predicts that players such as Tesla and Solar City will reduce them to one cabinet.

Woodstock Hydro Whites Lanes microgrid system: View of lead acid batteries and smart meters. Source: Woodstock Hydro.
Woodstock Hydro Whites Lanes microgrid system: View of lead acid batteries and smart meters. Source: Woodstock Hydro.

We’re closer than ever to making renewable energy, electric vehicles and energy storage truly plug ’n’ play. Tesla’s launch of Tesla Energy—a new energy storage product line that includes the Powerwall home battery, energy storage for businesses and utility storage—is creating further momentum, bringing plug ’n’ play storage to the masses starting this summer. The company’s sleek seven-kilowatt-hour and 10-kilowatt-hour wall-mounted Powerwall batteries, priced at US$3,000 and US$3,500 respectively, can be connected to solar power systems and/or to the grid, and offer benefits including load shifting, providing backup power and storing surplus solar energy.

“We can harvest today’s sun for tomorrow’s use,” says JayOne thing is clear: Woodstock Hydro is a progressive utility that sees renewables, conservation and smart meters as things to be embraced—and this microgrid project is the first step to providing superior customer service.

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