Microgrids Should Be a Key Element in Power Grid Modernization

Dec 2, 2016 9:00 AM ET

Modernization of the U.S. power grid will not only require replacement of old components with new ones, it will also need to account for larger amounts of renewable energy and distributed generation. This movement is causing utilities to consider microgrids as a part of the solution. 

“The industry is rethinking how to build the generation and distribution network to more cost-effectively deliver reliable electric service,” said Jason Abiecunas, Distributed Generation Service Area Lead in Black & Veatch’s power business. “A new generation of low-carbon microgrids is emerging and shifting the way energy is produced, distributed and consumed.” 

The idea of deploying microgrids is gaining momentum across the United States. A total of 124 microgrids with a combined capacity of 1,169 megawatts (MW) were operating across the nation as of July 2015, according to Pew Research. The group also predicted that microgrid capacity will grow to exceed 2,850 MW by 2020, an increase of almost 145 percent. Market revenue is expected to soar as well, rising nearly 270 percent to total over $3.5 billion. 

Part of this recent surge is prompted by recent extreme weather events that have caused extended grid outages across the Northeast. These high-profile events have served as catalysts for federal, state and local governments to take action. 

“Microgrids have emerged as a powerful tool in building a more resilient and sustainable power grid,” Abiecunas said. 

Being Both Green and Resilient 

Resilient and low-carbon systems require multiple technologies to deliver on requirements, Abiecunas explained. A system based only on solar and wind generation would be low-carbon but would not deliver resilient or reliable service, because these are both intermittent resources dependent on the sun and wind. 

“To be resilient, resources such as energy storage and fossil-fueled generation are required as part of the system,” he said. “Seamless integration of multiple-generation sources is then at the heart of what makes a system a microgrid.” 

A platform for remotely operating and maintaining microgrids is also critical because these resources are typically designed to be “operator-free.” Modern data analytics platforms analyze operations, performance and equipment health in real time. At the same time, they perform predictive analytics to optimize performance and forecast maintenance requirements. 

Abiecunas said these platforms, such as Black & Veatch’s ASSET360TM, can identify wasted energy and enhance efficiency through coordination of smart devices – all while constantly evaluating market costs and environmental performance. 

Connecting Smart Cities 

Cities and communities are increasingly looking at smart city initiatives with the objective of building more sustainable, connected and resilient cities. Several cities are now developing programs with components such as Wi-Fi kiosks, electric vehicle charging, microgrids, smart street lighting and smart traffic management systems. 

“Microgrids are a key part of these initiatives, delivering resilient generation to keep critical community facilities online in case the grid goes down,” Abiecunas said. 

According to the 2016 Black & Veatch Strategic Directions: Electric Industry report, utilities and cities are also moving toward public-private partnerships to fund these initiatives. Many communities are capital constrained, and this model enables them to take advantage of smart city programs and microgrids. 

Black & Veatch Builds Its Own Microgrid

To gain a greater understanding of the potential value of microgrids, Black & Veatch constructed a hybrid low-carbon microgrid that powers a significant portion of the company’s world headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas. This system is composed of:

  • 50 kilowatts (kW) of solar photovoltaic generation;
  • Two 65 kW natural gas-fired microturbines with the ability to capture and use waste heat (combined heat and power);
  • A 100 kW/100 kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery energy storage system;
  • Electric vehicle charging stations;
  • A geothermal field that helps maintain comfortable temperatures year-round.

The system is also integrated with the building management system to enable transitions from grid-connected to island operation by matching generation with the building load. 

“Businesses stand to benefit by incorporating microgrid projects in smart city initiatives, embedding them at the core of holistic strategic planning,” Abiecunas said. 

Learn more at www.bv.com/microgrids