This week CleanTechnica is reporting from the Digital Innovation Summit North America in beautiful downtown Atlanta, Georgia, where the skies are cloudy but the atmosphere is practically crackling with energy. Renewable energy, that is. The summit is hosted by France-based Schneider Electric, one of those powerhouses of global commerce that knows something certain elected officials in the US won’t tell you: the low carbon economy is here to stay.
Renewable Energy, Microgrids, And Resilience
Schneider Electric is a legacy energy management company that still has a foothold in fossil fuels. However, the focus is clearly on the future.
Andy Haun, the company’s microgrids Chief Technology Officer, sat down with CleanTechnica to explain how the company’s cloud-based EcoStruxure energy management platform is propelling the company’s renewable energy profile.
If the Schneider name is ringing some bells, it’s the force behind the renewable energy-enabled microgrid and resilience project unveiled last month by Montgomery County, Maryland (following comments edited for clarity and flow):
The Schneider Electric view of the microgrid space is from the perspective of energy management automation.
We produce electrical products for buildings, mining operations, grid systems, hospitals. Over the past 20 years these products have been made smarter, and now with IoT (the Internet of Things) these smart products, with real time embedded controls, have embedded communications.
If I tied them all together they could have a conversation with eachother, but that’s about all.
Our EcoStruxure system is tied to an edge controller, which works with the smart devices and facilitates their behavior. The difference is that we augment the edge controller with a cloud environment analytics engine, that gathers data from all the smart products, across the cloud services, and makes bigger, broader, smarter decisions.
If you’re new to the topic of edge control, Haun suggests this analogy:
Think of it like a symphony. You can have the best musicians, and they all know exactly what to do. But you can’t just say “go play” at them. It will sound awful.
The musicians don’t know what you’re hearing. They need a conductor. The conductor is aware of the audience, and can modulate the sound. So, the edge controller is like the conductor.
As for the analytical part of the system, the analogy also holds there:
The conductor didn’t pick the music, the location, or the ticket prices. That’s all done by the production team, in other words by the analytics engine.
In a microgrid — with photovoltaic panels and smart controls — the edge controller gets the plan from analytics engine. That includes factors like time of day pricing and weather forecasting for PV production.
Our system provides a three-day plan updated every 15 minutes, so in other words it can run for three days even if the cloud connection is lost.
As for the Montgomery County project, that could be a harbinger of things to come.
Montgomery has faced the same problems that beset many of the other 3,000-odd counties in the US, where aging energy infrastructure is butting up against an increase in extreme weather events.
Add a limited (or no) dollars to spend on energy upgrades, and an interest in renewable energy, and that’s where things get interesting:
Montgomery had an energy problem. They had sent an RFP to study their aging infrastructure, and they also wanted to do sustainability. They needed to upgrade their old gear and achieve resiliency.
They didn’t start with the idea of a microgrid, but they wanted to do all this stuff and they had no budget for it.
What we proposed was energy as a service. A third party investor does the microgrid and all the infrastructure, so they own and operate the assets.
Montgomery pays the owner-operator the fee for the electricity, just like a utility. It’s like buying electricity off the meter, plus you get all the other services.
The system also improves over years, through cloud computing, which enables it to constantly adjust itself.
That thing about ongoing system updates is a pretty radical change in terms of lifecycle costs and system adaptability.
Haun also emphasized that this is only the tip of the beginning. Today’s IoT infrastructure has only been in place for a few years. Previously, there weren’t enough data center resources to support it.
If you’re wondering where all this microgrid stuff leaves conventional utilities, that’s a good question.
Some of utilities have hopped on the energy-as-a-service train and are active in the distributed renewable energy field.
Others are starting to talk about grid defection issues, in which the same (or greater) costs are spread around a shrinking customer base, forcing rates up.
As Haun sees it, microgrids don’t necessarily contribute to grid defection. However, it’s pretty clear that the utilities that maintain — and grow — their customer base will be the ones that provide renewable energy in the grid mix, at competitive rates:
Energy optimization in a microgrid includes energy from the utility. It’s part of the grid. We use energy from the grid when it’s green and cheap, and we use local energy when it’s green and cheap.
Reliability Vs. Resiliency
Another way to think of the relationship between microgrids and utility survival is in terms of the difference between reliability and resilience. In the context of resilience, microgrids can help utilities keep their costs down.
The reliability of the grid is pretty good right now. You trust that the lights will come on when you hit the switch. Resilience has to do with power outages. Resilience is a response to an event.
It would be far too costly to engineer maximum resilience throughout a central grid. The goal is to make the central grid reliable enough, then add more resiliency to key facilities like hospitals and data centers. In other words, microgrids expand the benefits of the grid.
Got all that?
Speaking of aging energy infrastructure, that Miramar project is just one example of the US military’s reliance on third party financing to foster its ongoing clean power transition. Military communities — cities, counties, and states — are also eager to get their hands on low cost, decentralized, reliable, rate-stabilized electricity.
That interplay between national defense and community resiliency is already becoming a force for change. In the absence of White House leadership on renewable energy revolution, it looks like third-party financing is stepping into the breach.
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Photo (screenshot): via Schneider Electric.