Will U.S. Utilities Develop Microgrid Models for the Developing World?

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The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has long been seen as a clean technology pioneer. After all, this is a utility that shuttered a nuclear reactor after a public vote in 1989, and has since blazed trails on wind, solar, and energy efficient technologies.

The company’s corporate headquarters will soon be showing off a new technology – a microgrid – that has historically been the anathema of utilities since it promotes energy independence, even allowing customers to secede from the larger utility grid powered up by their own resources. SMUD’s microgrid is expected to be up and running this summer and will be fueled primarily by solar photovoltaic panels, small combined heat and power units (CHP), and zinc flow batteries, all allowing SMUD’s most critical operations to continue to function in the event of a larger power outage.

SMUD’s corporate headquarters is deploying a technology that is actually the antithesis of the smart grid being developed by investor-owned utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Developed with help from the California Energy Commission and the University of Wisconsin, newly developed software and “smart” switches allows all generation sources and appliances and other “loads” to harmonize like a commune when the grid goes down. Known as CERTS (Consortium for Electric Reliability Technology Systems), this software is embedded in devices such as the Tecogen’s 100 kW CHP unit, reducing the price tag attached to most microgrid control systems. Unlike the complexity of sensors and smart meters necessary for the smart grid, this new software is so simple that it could allow small solar communities in Africa, South America, the Mideast, and Australia to boost reliance upon small solar and wind systems, while accelerating power sharing and collaborative ventures.

What makes the SMUD microgrid noteworthy is that it is validating an operating system that may have its best applications in regions of the world where there is no grid at all! Longer-term, these microgrids represent a vehicle to allow the developing world to leapfrog past the industrial world’s reliance upon towering large transmission systems and instead create nimble, small-scale sustainable energy networks that hardly touch the landscape. Shorter-term, microgrids represent a bottoms-up solution to improving reliability and boosting reliance upon indigenous resources, which in the case of Sacramento, is the sun. Once the SMUD microgrid is fully tested, the utility will evaluate whether it might sponsor such islands of power or allow the private sector to develop these microgrids within its own service territory.

Utility engineers have historically opposed the concept of islanding on the basis of safety and lack of control of their own power grids. The standard line was that unintentional islanding endangered the lives of crews working to restore power. Today, however, a host of new power conversion inverter technologies have convinced the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that little islands of self-sufficient microgrids are no longer a threat to either workers or to the utility grid in general. SMUD is therefore among a handful of utilities exploring how microgrids can deliver benefits – instead of being perceived as a threat. Other utilities currently investigating how microgrids could help them do their jobs better include San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), American Electric Power, and Canada’s B.C. Hydro. SDG&E’s efforts are probably the most noteworthy. It is developing a microgrid at Borrego Springs in the high desert, looking to tap excellent solar energy resources owned by its customers to help sustain operations at a remote utility substation.

Developing countries that have yet to build out the centralized power plant radial transmission model, which we in the industrialized world have taken for granted, offer unique near-term market opportunities for microgrids. Typically, these microgrids will initially be on a smaller scale and have a simpler design. The first ones being built in British Columbia with the help of B.C. Hydro and General Electric will only be 100 kW in size, about 1/3 of the capacity of SMUD’s corporate headquarters. Over the long term, however, the markets in developing countries could become the largest microgrid sector. Why? It is quite feasible that as smaller microgrids become networked with each other, these islanded pockets of power may obviate the need for – or greater reduce the scale of – any central transmission grid. Ironically enough, deploying state-of-the-art microgrids as ways of aggregating decentralized and dispersed energy resources in these developing countries may allow them to leapfrog over developed nations in the sophistication and efficacy of their electricity grid operations, thus offering enticing business prospects for microgrid developers that actually can deliver real social and environmental value and component suppliers – a rare combination these days. This may be the most attractive Bottom of the Pyramid business model of any kind available today.

Article by Peter Asmus, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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