The US Department of Defense has been exploring new microgrid technology for at least the past 10 years or so, and the massive agency is finally tired of pussyfooting around. Last week it decided on a step that could bring microgrids — presumably with a good dose of renewable energy — to scores of DoD facilities around the country. The ripple effect could also ripple out and tap any number of civilian communities for microgrids as well.
Microgrids & The Known Unknowns
For those of you new to the topic, loosely speaking a microgrid serves a relatively small, defined set of users, typically with electricity that it generates itself either within the user base or close by.
In some cases — for example in a remote community or outpost — microgrids operate as a matter of routine without connecting to a wider grid.
In many cases microgrids do connect to the wider grid, but they can also “island” themselves off when needed. If the lights go out on the wider grid, microgrids can keep the lights on for their users.
If that sounds like resiliency, it is. Aside from military facilities, microgrids are of interest to many other federal, state, and local government complexes as well as hospitals, schools, industrial parks, and other campus-like settings.
The problem is that many such campuses in the US consist of a hodgepodge of buildings that were thrown up at various points in history, often decades apart, with different power loads and no thought that they would one day be connected in a modern microgrid.
That means each microgrid installation must reinvent the wheel, adding expense and gumming up the timeline.
Microgrids & The NRECA Advantage
That resiliency angle is especially important to DoD, and with that in mind, last week the agency tapped the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association for a $1.9 million grant to apply a standardized, scalable microgrid planning tool to its facilities.
Does that sound like a big deal? It is! Rural electric coops cover 60% of the US land mass, control 42% of distribution lines, and serve about 42 million customers. They do what other utilities do, but they are tax exempt, consumer-owned organizations set up by an Act of Congress in 1936.
The nation’s electric cooperatives lit up rural areas that for-profit utilities wouldn’t touch in the years of the Great Depression, and they have been going strong ever since.
In recent years they have been serving as hotbeds of innovation for clean tech including renewable energy, agrivoltaics, and microgrids, among others.
In a phone conversation with CleanTechnica last week, NRECA spokesperson Tracy Warren explained that “coops are great way to field test a of these technologies because they are small and don’t have the same regulatory constraints” as for-profit utilities.
“There’s a lot of interest [in microgrids] as costs come down,” she added.
One Open Modeling Framework To Rule Them All
NRECA already has a good head start on the DoD work through its Open Modeling Framework project, which aims at enabling its member coops to make informed decisions about investing in smart grid technology.
The framework helps coops perform cost-benefit evaluations by applying their own real-world data to software, before they put down the money on new systems and equipment. The variables include weather and geographic data as well as operational data from the coops.
The framework has already gotten quite a bit of support from the Department of Energy, through an initial investment by the Office of Electricity, as well as through its ARPA-E office for supporting high-risk, high-reward R&D projects.
In 2016, for example, ARPA-E tapped NRECA to build additional capabilities onto the framework with “breakthrough data repositories and open-access models of the electric grid—foundational tools that are needed to modernize the country’s electric infrastructure.”
“…the co-ops had brought a collaborative, online approach to the issues of dynamic powerflow and cost-benefit analysis for emerging technology,” enthused NRECA in a press release announcing the ARPA-E award.
No kidding. If old-school data collection and analysis is a jalopy, the Open Modeling Framework is flying the next mission to Mars. Here’s the explainer from NRECA (breaks added for readability):
Unlike current generation tools, it fully integrates modern software languages, is cloud-deployable, leverages cutting-edge simulation engines, provides a full data ingest, visualization, and learning pipeline, and includes detailed device models for emerging technologies (solar, energy storage, microturbines, networked controls, etc.).
Also unlike established and emerging planning tools, it is open source, continuously improving through contributions from a broad community…fully modifiable and auditable, and available at minimal cost.
Microgrid Revolution, From 4 to 90
Lauren Khair, who is NRECA’s Senior Analyst for Economics and Business, dug into the details with CleanTechnica last week.
“The Department of Defense has done a lot of things piecemeal, so the idea is to find technologies that can be scaled,” she explained. “We want to standardize data inputs and assumptions before we design a microgrid, and if we standardize the planning process we can cut down on soft costs.”
For the new project, NRECA will be working with four facilities selected with an eye on diversity in geographic location, size, and mission. All four are currently served by coops.
NRECA’s member coops provide electricity to about 90 different DoD facilities, so if all goes according to plan those first four will be just be the tip of the iceberg.
What About Renewable Energy?
Overall community benefit issues and existing long-term contracts influence the pace at which NRECA members can adopt clean power, but interest is high and some have already taken the plunge.
That dovetails neatly with DoD’s pursuit of renewable energy. The agency has been busily installing utility-scale renewables (mainly solar) at facilities all across the country, giving more juice to its pursuit of microgrid technology.
“A lot of military installations have renewables, so when you’re thinking about microgrids you definitely need to think about that,” Khair noted.
To that end, she explained, the four DoD sites selected for the new project represent different opportunities for renewables and microgrids.
Only one site is a “clean slate” where microgrid planning can start from scratch. Among the other three, one already has solar, one has a microgrid, and one has a combination of clean tech.
As the conversation wrapped up, Lauren drew attention to the symbiotic relation between military facilities and the surrounding civilian community.
“If power were to go out, military individuals are also thinking about community resilience,” Lauren said. She explained that lessons learned through the DoD project could be applied to set up microgrid systems in nearby communities or, for that matter, practically anywhere.
The missing piece is energy storage and NRECA already has an idea or two about that, so stay tuned.
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Grid abstract image courtesy of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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