Why Microgrids & Co-Generation Are Coal’s Worst Nightmare (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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In the midst of all the gloom and doom hovering over the US coal industry, the great state of West Virginia is celebrating an uptick in coal production. That’s good news for coal communities, at least for now. However, it’s a case of the exception proving the rule. Natural gas, renewable energy, and microgrids have already eaten away at coal’s grip on domestic power production, and they are coming back for seconds.

Microgrids Are Ready For Their Closeup

The worst is yet to come. Of those three factors, cheap natural gas has been the main force driving coal out of the power generation market. More recently, renewables have been catching up to natural gas. The last piece to fall into place is the microgrid sector.

It’s not just wishful thinking. Regardless of current White House* policy, the US Department of Energy is still pursuing its ongoing Grid Modernization Initiative, which leans heavily on integrating more renewables into the grid.

In a related area of funding, the Energy Department is promoting microgrids and distributed energy resources as means of building more resiliency and reliability into the nation’s electricity supply.

Put everything together, and you have a situation in which economic growth is not locked in to centralized coal power plants — or centralized anything, for that matter.

One Microgrid To Rule Them All

For some insights into the microgrid trend, CleanTechnica sat down on the phone with Brian Curtis, CEO and founder of the cogeneration and microgrid company Concentric Power.

Curtis began by noting that the transition to microgrids and distributed energy resources is happening quickly, as the shift in weather patterns associated with climate change has been having a real impact on daily life.

A case in point is a microgrid project that Concentric recently undertook for the vegetable processor Taylor Farms at its Gonzales, California location (following comments edited for clarity and flow).

CleanTechnica: Tell us what the Taylor Farms project accomplishes.

Curtis: The way we look at it, we solve three problems. One is reducing the carbon footprint and increasing energy efficiency. Another involves economics and costs. Taylor Farms has a very efficient system. They save money relative to being on the grid.

The third element is energy independence. This is not as obvious as the other two elements, but most of our customers are agricultural and industrial end users. They are used to negotiating with every supplier, but when it comes to power they have to take what utility gives them. Generating their own power and controlling their own fate is a common theme.

CleanTechnica: Taylor Farms already had some wind and solar. What did Concentric Power add?

Curtis: They already had wind and they were starting to build solar. We brought in co-generation, then we brought our software platform that runs the co-generation engine and the whole microgrid.

Wind and solar are pretty straightforward; they go when they go. The engine is the variable we control. Our system controls and optimizes it in real time. We can run the engine up and down depending on what wind and solar are doing. We also take into account grid supply and the cost of natural gas.

Just this morning we went over preliminary results for 2018 with Taylor. We outperformed forecasts on all counts: efficiency, savings, and production levels.

Natural Gas Still In Play, For Now

Back in 2017, CleanTechnica noted that natural gas stakeholders were leveraging renewable energy to push back against special protections for coal power plants. The basic argument is that gas turbines provide consistency and they also have something coal lacks: agility and flexibility.

The consistency argument is beginning to fade as energy storage and “virtual power plant” systems come into play. Nevertheless, co-generation engines could still an important factor in the inexorable drive against coal for the foreseeable future, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a continued reliance on fossil gas. The emerging market for renewable biogas will help push gas-enabled microgrids into greener territory.

CleanTechnica: How does natural gas fit into the renewable energy picture?

Curtis: To have renewables actually work you need firm power. If you’re using the grid for firm power you get the grid mix.

In the spirit of energy independence, if we can be completely off the grid all the better. You have the flexibility to maximize your renewable penetration. You just need to be clear minded about where you draw the boundaries. In other words, are you still 100% renewable if you still rely on the grid?

Renewable biogas is a pathway to being 100% renewable. We have some projects in the works that could provide renewable and firm power at the same time.

CleanTechnica: Can you talk about some of your upcoming projects?

Curtis: We’re working on a large ranch project that involves upwards of 40 plus meters, that will start construction later this year. We are aggregating them with solar, some engines and a microgrid to tie it all together.

We are also working on an off-grid industrial and agricultural park, which involves an engine, batteries, and solar.

This facility has been off-grid from the beginning. They are developing the site faster than the utility can provide power. The bottleneck is mainly in substations and distribution. It always takes a long time to get utility service, and they were tired of waiting around.

Being able to break free of dependency on utilities to even start a project is really attractive to industry.

Energy Independence Forever!

If you caught those things about negotiating with vendors, tired of waiting around, and energy independence, you’re on to something. If you can put it all together and drop us a note in the comment thread, please do.

In the meantime, let’s circle back around and take a closer look at the situation in West Virginia.

The celebratory mood kicked off last summer, when the US Energy Information reported that coal production was down nationwide but up significantly in West Virginia.

That’s actually not so great news in terms of the big picture, and it gets worse. The West Virginia coal surge has been attributed to overseas demand.

As for domestic demand, coal power plants have been shuttering at a rapid clip all during the Trump administration with no end in sight — partly because major US companies like Taylor see the advantages of microgrids and renewable energy.

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*Developing story.

Image: via Taylor Farms.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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