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The Value of Building-Scale Microgrids & Small Wind

There’s no doubt about it: our energy landscape is changing. If anyone tells you they know what it will look like in 50 years, be very skeptical — there are a lot of unpredictable factors yet to hit the playing field. One likely possibility, though, which a lot of people in the industry are predicting, is that microgrids will play a much larger part than they do now.

The term “microgrid” is still a bit general, though. There are various scales of microgrids. I tend to think of community-scale or neighborhood-scale microgrids, but another very important segment of this industry in the coming years may well be building-scale microgrids. But what’s the difference between a building-scale microgrid and simply having solar panels + battery storage? Several things are different, actually.

Pika Energy, which generously sponsored this CleanTechnica article, explains the differences and benefits very clearly, while also highlighting its own microgrid technology advantages. Following the simple schematic below, I’ll run down a list of 3 overall advantages of Pika Energy’s building-scale microgrid options, with numerous advantages packaged together. Some of these only apply in certain circumstances, and some may not be present in other microgrid packages on the market.

1. Energy Security

One of the more obvious advantages of microgrids in general is energy security in the case of blackouts and perhaps even big natural disasters. Solar panels connected to the grid get shut down if the grid goes down, per certain grid safety measures. However, if you have a microgrid setup that can disconnect from the larger electricity grid in such cases, your electricity can keep flowing.

Furthermore, if you also drive an electric vehicle and tie it into the microgrid, you don’t have to worry about not having gasoline if something like Superstorm Sandy comes along, and can at least avoid the long lines at the gas station that accompany such disasters.

The energy security gets even better if you’re in a location with a good wind energy profile and include wind turbines in your microgrid. While the cost of solar panels is now very hard to beat when it comes to small-scale power systems, there are some cases in which small wind can beat small-scale solar (a very good wind profile and relatively poor solar profile, to be specific). However, sometimes it’s not about competing but cooperating. Wind and solar are often very complementary sources of electricity, improving the overall robustness and minimum power generation of your system.

Naturally, Pika Energy offers small wind power systems as well as microgrid- and solar-related systems. But that is far from explaining what Pika is offering.

2. Efficiency & Flexibility

One of Pika’s arguments is the efficiency it provides. Additionally, it offers flexibility rather than a single option. “The REbus microgrid was designed to plug-and-play, making it easy to combine different sources to build secure, efficient, cost-effective energy systems for homes and businesses,” the company writes. “Because our buildings will increasingly produce as well as consume energy (the ‘Prosumer’ model), REbus is built on bi-directional power electronics that can buy, sell, or store power efficiently.”

Continuing with some talk of the “Internet of Things” and smart nodes: “Pika’s REbus microgrid approach delivers both energy and system information over the same wires, making every product on the network a smart node in the ‘Internet of Things.’ Abundance of power is signaled by the voltage of the REbus, making it simple to deliver powerful capabilities, like heating water when energy is plentiful, and selling power when prices are highest. REbus also uses Powerline Carrier communication (PLC) to share information – more reliably than wireless in tough, noisy environments.”

Pika also notes how it can allow DC electricity from solar panels and wind turbines to directly power appliances and computers (which use DC electricity), rather than needing to run the electricity through AC adapters and thus lose some along the way.

“REbus sets a new standard for safe, efficient power distribution with a 380 volt DC bus. This means energy losses are 2.5 to 10X lower compared to old-fashioned AC wiring, and wiring costs can be lower. Converting power from clean energy sources to a REbus™ microgrid is significantly more efficient than converting to the AC grid, and less loss means more value to the building owner.”

At the end of the day, though, many decisions are about just that: value. And more specifically, financial value. So one key for many potential building-scale microgrid customers is whether or not it’s going to saving them money.

3. Financial Savings

Financial savings are going to depend on many specific factors that have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. If people tell you their product is going to save you money without actually knowing your current situation, they’re probably not the most trustworthy people on the planet.

Pike Energy doesn’t make that claim, but it notes several things about its building-scale microgrids and related technology that I think are worth mentioning.

As already noted above, Pika’s REbus system takes away the need for multiple AC/DC conversions. It also cuts the need for relatively expensive copper wires. “Integrated powerline carrier (PLC) communication eliminates the need to run control wiring or add expensive and unreliable wireless communications,” it adds. The savings add up if you include an electric vehicle or vehicles in the microgrid system.

Pika is also keen to highlight a couple of cases where microgrids initially have a lot of potential for saving money. The Aloha State is the center of one of those. “Electricity customers in Hawaii could save over 70% by using solar panels – but the utility won’t allow it, because the grid is bottlenecked.” Whether the grid is bottlenecked or utilities are simply guarding their profits is up for discussion, but the potential savings for people who have long been waiting to go solar are certainly very real.

The other big one is the case of commercial building owners who are paying an arm and a leg in peak demand charges. Cutting electricity consumption is one great solution to that issue, but that only goes so far for some customers. A microgrid system that allows them to shave their grid electricity demand is another one, and it already offers big financial savings for many commercial building owners.

A number of companies are working their way into the microgrid scene. Without extremely thorough research, I’d never recommend one of them over the others, but Pika Energy’s offerings (without knowing their prices and taking $ into account) look as good as any I’ve seen. You have to contact Pika if you want to dig into the prices.

Again, thanks to Pika for sponsoring this fun article, and helping more people transition to a clean energy future.

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