Siemens has kicked off a new pilot in partnership with Chicago-based ComEd and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) that aims to redefine the microgrid as an integrated operating unit within the grid.
The dual-pronged pilot is focused on developing next-generation microgrid controller logic that can handle complex, grid-supportive situations as well as a parallel effort to explore the potential for large volumes of photovoltaic solar on microgrids, when paired with stationary storage. To get the inside scoop on the project, I spoke with vice president of strategy for Siemens Digital Grid, Ken Geisler.
The Nanogrid in Your Closet
The little brother to the microgrid is what is most often called the nanogrid. Think of it as a Smart Home that has its own energy generation, energy storage, and energy consumption units with a smart brain to keep them all in balance. In the real world, the Tesla home ecosystem is the best example of this, which adds electric vehicles into the mix which bring their own set of opportunities and challenges.
Nanogrids have their own set of challenges and opportunities, with on-site energy generation being at the top of the list, and each region around the world having different amounts of solar, wind, and geothermal potential. Small fuel-based generators are staples in backup power for those living in areas prone to extended power outages due to storms and the like. Adding an intelligent controller and some stationary energy storage has the potential to elevate the functionality and benefits of nanogrids to a new level in the coming years as battery prices continue to come down.
Zooming out a bit, microgrids are typically larger systems designed to support commercial and industrial (C&I) customers looking to tie on-site power generation with energy storage to offset large energy consumption units with a smart controller to rule them all. The pilot by Siemens stretches the traditional definition of microgrids to include entire communities.
Mr. Geisler noted that communities are increasingly creating Community Energy Plans that look at the needs of critical service providers like Police, Fire, and Water. The community can then use its Energy Plan to map out what amounts to a local microgrid that will ensure energy availability to critical service providers in the event of a grid failure. For example, a city might choose to add solar panels to the roof of City Hall with batteries installed in the basement to ensure the crisis control room for the city is functional in the event of a power outage.
In the recent Thomas Fire that swept through Southern California, there were reports of the fire hydrants losing water pressure due to the failure of the central fire pumps that supplied them as a result of the intermittent power outages caused by the fire. Taking electricity supply into account as a function of Disaster Management will help cities to improve their ability to provide services to area residents in the worst of conditions. For example, a grid-connected battery pack like Tesla’s Powerpack coupled with a local solar panel installation could have prevented the alleged fire pump outage. Ken shared a similar perspective, noting that, “If we have it more decentralized, by definition, it will be more resilient. It has to be because you’ve taken away the single point of failure.”
A Patchwork of Microgrids
Ultimately, Mr. Geisler envisions the grid of the future as a patchwork of smaller microgrids that all intelligently, intuitively work together, saying “These clusters of resources in a coherent area might be able to support more of what I would call a patchwork quilt of microgrids such that the utility has some level of control that helps offset their costs and manage their rates as well as allows third parties to come in and provide resources at some level like rooftop solar or other microgrids that could pop up for the sole purpose for the C&I industry in the area.”
Adding intelligent microgrids to the grid requires work to integrate them into the grid to ensure that they not only talk to each other but also to the utility managing them. Having dozens of microgrids on the grid won’t help if each one only does what’s in its own best interests, but rather, they’ll have to play to the tune being piped by the utility for everything to mesh together seamlessly.
Geisler sees the primary benefit to utility customers being a more resilient grid that comes with all sorts of benefits:
“As it spreads out and the technology gets better, we should see a parity with that kind of cost as well as an uptick in resiliency. So it’s the patchwork design that’s what ultimately will take more of an integrator hold in the industry. You’ll see sustainability gains, you’ll see resiliency gains, you’ll see efficiency gains that come out of it.”
There’s no question that grids are evolving rapidly, with significant trickle-down to the end users. As governments, utilities, electric vehicle manufacturers, EV charging hardware providers, and solar installers get smarter, end users will also start to get more comfortable talking about and using the technologies that support them in the home and at work.
Geisler envisions communities that have taken their own energy independence to heart, and as a result, are using emerging microgrid technologies, like the ones being developed by Siemens in this pilot, to improve the resiliency of the grid as a result of their ability to provide critical services no matter what the circumstances. “We’re kinda in this together, y’know what I mean?”
Sources: Interview + Siemens