U.S. Campus Microgrids Lead Despite Utilities

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Hurricane Irene, which knocked out power for approximately six million customers in 13 states and the District of Columbia last week, raises a question: What smart grid technology could have enabled homes, businesses, and mission critical institutions to have played a more vital role in providing reliability, security, and emergency services?

The simple answer is a microgrid, as all of the sensors and sophisticated IT systems that been receiving so much hype would have, for the most part, been rendered useless once power went out. As this moniker implies, a microgrid is a small version of the larger utility grid, but with an important distinction. When there is an emergency – whether that is a huge storm or a terrorist attack – microgrids can keep the lights on, maintaining power internally by sealing themselves off from the large grid, creating islands of energy self-sufficiency.

That’s one reason the U.S. military is so enamored by the technology. In terms of actual online capacity, however, it is college and university campuses that are leading the way, according to a new report from Pike Research. By 2017, for example, Pike Research forecasts the North American education campus environment segment will reach 1,281 MW at a CAGR (2011-2017) of 17.5% in the average scenario. Overall, the North American campus environment sector will reach 1,572 MW out of a global total of 1,642 MW, a world market share that exceeds 95% in the same average scenario.

Typically, these educational institutions already manage energy in a comprehensive way, often integrating within the confines of existing technology for on-site electric and thermal generation and loads. Thus, the leap up to a microgrid configuration is the next logical step in achieving greater autonomy and control of energy futures for these financially secure enterprises. This sector is the largest of the global microgrid market sectors. Like the military sector, it is also dominated by the United States. Annual revenue is projected to reach almost $800 million by 2017 in Pike Research’s average scenario.

One of the two leading states for campus environment microgrids is New York, where three such microgrids have come online since 2009:

The 38 MW Cornell University microgrid

The 13.4 MW New York University Washington Square Park microgrid

The 3.6 MW Burrstone Energy Center microgrid (which encompasses Utica College, and St. Luke’s Hospital and Nursing Home)

Indeed, New York City, due to transmission constraints and a utility – Consolidated Edison – that views microgrids as an opportunity to sell natural gas to combined heat and power (CHP) units, may be the best single urban market for microgrids in the world. The impacts of Irene throughout Con Ed’s service territory may only accelerate efforts to expand this energy management platform through the Eastern seaboard, as well as throughout the United States where hurricanes can cut traditional power supplies.

Nevertheless, the most active state market for this college microgrid segment is on the other side of the country. The 23-campus California State University (CSU) system has, for example, adopted policies mandating renewable energy purchases and installations, conservation, and green buildings. At present, virtually all of the CSU campuses feature some form of a microgrid, though most are fairly primitive, first generation manual systems. At least four CSU campuses are currently entertaining proposals to develop state-of-the-art microgrids incorporating carbon-free renewable distributed energy generation (RDEG), as well as smart grid demand response (DR) and other energy efficiency upgrades.

The vision of General Microgrids, which is negotiating to develop the first four CSU microgrid upgrades incorporating new RDEG, CHP, fuel cell, and advanced storage systems, is to develop a network of microgrids that could serve as the basis for a secondary market for grid operators such as the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). Under this compelling but provocative vision, microgrids can protect and service the larger utility-operated grid and cooperate with adjacent microgrids. Moreover, these microgrids can work independently as well as aggregate their capabilities, thereby becoming integrated systems.

Note that meeting California’s 33% by 2020 Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) goals will require 20,000 MW of new generation capacity. Governor Jerry Brown has signaled that roughly 12,000 MW of this total could be distributed renewable energy resources, an extremely difficult integration challenge for CAISO. Certainly, distribution utilities, primarily the investor-owned utilities (IOUs), have no capability to leverage their distribution circuits in the same fashion as transmission circuits, providing two-way power flow. Thus, to reduce the risks attached to integrating distributed renewables, storage, and load management, General Microgrids is offering the concept of building a secondary market for microgrids, adjacent to CAISO, to support grid reliability. The CSU system could serve as the backbone of this groundbreaking aggregation and optimization network.

Yet according to Len Pettis, Chief of Energy and Utility Operations in CSU’s Chancellor’s office, it is utilities that are standing in the way of progress. He gave this quick example: “A stand-by service charge by a utility is worthless in time of a natural disaster and is a luxury we can no longer afford.” These charges are often rendered by utilities under the presumption that they need to back-up any on-site customer owned power supplies due to their legal obligation to serve. But these charges are also used to make alternatives to utility service uneconomic. During a storm or earthquake, utilities often cannot provide back-up as that is when their grid is most likely to go down.

“We need to develop contract partnerships with utilities, because we’ll be here for decades to come,” said Pettis, noting that at present, CSU is doing grid upgrades on a piecemeal basis. “Instead, our college campus network could integrate excess capacity and islanding functions and solve many of the problems linked with integration of new renewables for the next two decades. We’ve got the technology, but we have a bunch of knuckleheads in Sacramento and San Francisco,” he added, referring to the locations of the State Legislature and California Public Utilities Commission, respectively. With the right regulations in place, college campuses could add two to three times as much new supply as needed on-site, and then export that power locally within the community, reducing the 15% of power lost today due to long-distance transmission of electricity.

Article by Peter Asmus, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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.

1 Comment

  1. As an industrial control system integrator we have for many years beginning in the mid 1980’s actively performed balance of plant control system integration services of CHP, cogen & trigen in district energy, university & college campuses, medical area & research campuses and manufacturing facilities. We applaud your article!

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