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Decentralizing for Security, Resiliency and Sustainability

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Blair Pruett's picture
Director, Project Origination & Development Concentric Power, Inc.

Blair Pruett has had a 30+ year career in industrial technology and automation, during which time he was involved in such large scale projects as the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, San Diego’s...

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-01 - State of the Industry, click here for more

Intro

As the page turns to a new calendar year and a new presidential administration, there’s optimism that renewed efforts will be made to tackle our energy infrastructure challenges. After all, our nation’s energy infrastructure is at an inflection point caused, in part, by the electrification and digitalization of everything --- which is a great trend towards a zero carbon grid. While our 20th century grid has served its purpose well, it needs an upgrade if it is to support increased adoption of technologies like electric vehicles while also moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels. Add in that economic opportunities in more rural areas at the edge of the grid are likely to cause a shift in population concentration and it’s clear that the grid of tomorrow and beyond looks a lot different from what exists today.

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Market indicators reflect this reality and the new presidential administration has shared elements of a plan dedicated to fueling a “clean energy revolution.” The proposal includes specific immediate actions the administration can take, but there are broader elements that can’t be executed by federal mandate alone. One thing is clear: throwing dollars at the problem won’t fix it. It takes a strategy… the right strategy.

That’s where the debate begins.

The Problem with Renewables Alone as a Strategy

We all agree that renewables will be key to a reimagined power grid. What’s been challenging is the view some legislators have that renewable energy generation is the single silver bullet that will solve our infrastructure woes. In fact, in the summer of 2020, a task force led by now-president Biden’s campaign committee was established to put renewables at the forefront of the fight on climate change. They produced a report that, among other things, called for the installation of “500 million solar panels, including eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems and 60,000 made-in-America onshore and offshore wind turbines,” which would amount to hundreds of gigawatts of renewable energy generation capacity.

That’s great! However, what adding 500 million solar panels doesn’t do is address energy infrastructure security, resiliency, efficiency or help orchestrate a now even more complex energy ecosystem.

Revamping an energy grid by exponentially increasing renewable generation is like getting dressed by simply putting on a pair of pants. It’s a start and definitely a critical piece, but it misses the bigger picture. Just like pants aren’t a complete outfit, renewables don’t make a complete energy grid.

A Technologically Driven Complete Approach

To understand what strategy the current administration should focus their efforts and investment on we must start by asking what we want the grid of the future to look like. Simple improvements like a grid that is more secure from nefarious attacks, whether they be cyber or physical, and that has improved transmission efficiency makes obvious sense. A grid that allows for seamlessly integrating Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), whether currently available or yet to be imagined technologies, would help make the grid futureproof. Of course, there would need to be an interface that uses AI and machine learning as well as allow for human input to manage and control each of the DERs to support optimal grid performance for each community.

It would be resource prohibitive to achieve all of these improvements with the current centralized grid structure. The most attractive option for a once-in-a-century redevelopment of the national energy infrastructure is decentralizing the grid through a network of intelligent microgrids, accelerating a transition away from fossil fuels and delivering localized control over a community’s energy.

Microgrids will also enhance the grid’s security and resiliency. Reports of various foiled digital attacks targeting the US energy grid have become all too frequent while physical vulnerabilities have ignited fires across California and led to lengthy power outages after natural disasters. Decentralizing through microgrids can minimize the impact of outages, deliver flexibility in preparing for or responding to natural disasters, and decrease the target value of any cyber-attack. With a networked grid of grids, DERs can be built quickly compared to large central systems and many more can be done in parallel to meet the need years ahead of any other grid design. Plus, the end result is a more robust, resilient and cleaner overall system.

A distributed set of intelligent microgrid controllers, which work together to orchestrate all the DERs, is needed to tap this potential. Advanced controllers can utilize artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze load modeling against patterns identified through machine learning to ensure cost-effective energy generation while maintaining energy grid stability for the entire community.

With these new trainable algorithms, the previously overly complex decentralized model is now well within our computational control abilities to deliver a network of microgrids previously not possible.

Similar to how SpaceX rockets can now fly themselves to and from the ISS and cars will soon drive themselves, the ability to provide decentralized power generation and control is now a reality and is one of the most critical elements of 21st century energy infrastructure.

Policy Need

Over the last several decades, renewable energy legislation has been enacted to drive adoption of technologies like wind and solar. The legislation typically mirrored the proliferation of these sustainable energy sources. However, microgrids as an asset class are much more complicated and have advanced exponentially in just the last decade alone. The recent price drop of solar in addition to massive technology innovation in wind and batteries will require careful design, placement and control technologies to maximize the value of those assets.

As such, while policies in the space remain generally supportive as legislators recognize microgrids as a vital piece of energy infrastructure, there is a need to adjust the adoption and installation curve of microgrids to meet continually growing demand. 

In California, which is a leader among microgrid development and deployment, policy was recently enacted (SB 1339) to approve microgrid tariffs and relax rules to support microgrid deployment. It's a great step forward and while it’s expected there will be additional adjustments that enhance local control over the assets and accelerate third-party microgrid development, SB 1339 will be a model for other states going forward.

Longer terms, adjustments need to be made to California’s infamous over-the-fence rule to allow microgrids to provide energy to more than one property owner. To meet demand, microgrids will need to be able to serve multiple nearby customers to maximize their value. As regulators’ understanding of microgrid technologies continues to grow, an avenue for third party developers to meet requirements, demonstrate safety and security, and move our energy grid forward will emerge. Microgrids as an asset class have matured and there are creative financing structures that allow communities from Newark to Malibu to adopt intelligent microgrids. Nonetheless, one community-scale microgrid serving multiple customers has been introduced into the market thanks to creative business models the private sector has brought to communities.

At the federal level, legislation is moving forward to advance our country’s energy grid. The Energy Act of 2020, which focuses on research, development, and demonstration of next-generation technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is probably the boldest and most encouraging move yet. However, with just $75 million of the $35.2 billion price tag earmarked specifically for advancing the adoption of microgrids, it’s clear that the private sector will have to leapfrog the public sector to advance this segment of our energy infrastructure.

The Future

We are now at an inflection point of capabilities that coincides with a major need for more power, more dependable power, and cleaner power.

The country needs a national energy strategy, but the strategy should focus on a comprehensive overhaul of the grid to support the next century of society. We cannot afford for the potential of microgrids to be untapped. The new administration needs something to anchor a national energy strategy focused on security, resiliency and sustainability. Intelligent microgrids can play that central role.

Blair Pruett's picture
Thank Blair for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 9, 2021

The legislation typically mirrored the proliferation of these sustainable energy sources. However, microgrids as an asset class are much more complicated and have advanced exponentially in just the last decade alone.

Is there a concern that being such a fast moving/changing technological area makes legislation difficult on an ongoing basis? How do you use policy to push forward a solution that you may not even know how it'll look just a few short years from now? 

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Feb 11, 2021

A grid that allows for seamlessly integrating Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), whether currently available or yet to be imagined technologies, would help make the grid futureproof. 

Thanks for your insights @Blair Pruett. No question that the combination of diverse generation resources across microgrids leverages the complementary values of the different assets and increases reliability and resilience. Moreover, connecting multiple local community microgrids that are distributed across a power network contributes signiificantly to hardening the grid.   Federal and state legislation incentivizing public-private collaboration to expand microgrids would be a positive step forward that would also facilitate faster transition to and successful integration of renewables in the energy mix.

 

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