The Role of Microgrids in a Resilient Energy Future

April 17, 2019

Nearly 200 academics, regulators, and industry professionals convened at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) last month to discuss the role of microgrids in a resilient and clean energy future. The International Colloquium on Environmentally Preferred Advanced Power Generation (ICEPAG) event is in its 19th year and is organized by UCI’s Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) and its Combustion Laboratory (UCICL) and the National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC). This year’s program assembled stakeholders in research, policy, and industry to discuss emerging fuel cell and battery electric technologies, the modern electric grid interface, transportation applications, and demonstration projects.

Microgrids Defined

While lacking an official definition, microgrids are generally considered a collection of distributed energy resources (DERs) coordinated and interconnected to operate in a defined geographic area with and without supply from the power grid. While the technology has been around for many years, the number of companies providing microgrids has grown significantly in the past five years as interest has increased across the country. Microgrid projects have saved communities, companies, and utilities significant costs during power grid disruptions, and they present valuable energy management opportunities for electric vehicle (EV) fleets. Yet they also present new challenges to regulators and utilities. Lori Schell of Empowered Energy noted in her keynote speech that in the US today, 3.85 GW of microgrid capacity is operational and 1.55 GW is planned, with designs trending towards larger and solar-based systems.

Microgrid projects have saved communities, companies, and utilities significant costs during power grid disruptions, and they present valuable energy management opportunities for EV fleets.

Resilient, Reliable, and Integrated with Renewables

Unlike many energy efficiency technologies, the microgrid value proposition is minimally based on cost-savings opportunities. Instead, the biggest drivers are renewables’ integration, reliable power service, and resiliency against disruptions (mainly extreme weather events). According to Schell’s research, the US has experienced an average of six billion-dollar weather-related disasters per year since 2012, with the last three years showing the highest disaster frequency. Many of these have been fires and floods in coastal areas. It is likely not coincidental that the highest concentration of non-military microgrid installations are in these regions.

A Future Concern for Utilities

A growing interest in microgrids presents an increasing concern for utilities. While today’s microgrids represent only a tiny fraction of the country’s total installed power capacity, the trend towards larger installations challenges utilities’ bread-and-butter business. FuelCell Energy’s presentation defined microgrids as utility systems, begging the question of whether microgrids should be treated as complements or competitors to utilities.

UCI recently tested its own independence by islanding its 20 MW microgrid from Southern California Edison’s (SCE) services.[1] Over the one hour and fifteen-minute-long test, the microgrid successfully met all campus electrical demands—a very promising result for UCI, and a very real concern for SCE. Even when connected to the grid, UCI estimates that its microgrid can save the campus $140,000 annually through improved energy management.

Daunted by Compliance & Regulation

Poor alignment between utility regulation and technology innovation was a common theme at this year’s ICEPAG. Coordinating with SCE for what UCI initially scoped as a 15-minute test turned out to be a six-month long process. Wooster Engineering, which manages a privately-funded microgrid project in Sonoma, reported that its efforts to comply with Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) notification requirements has required significant hours over multiple years.

Part of the challenge is that the lack of interconnection standards exposes utilities, microgrids, and their consumers to significant risks of service failure. The need to correct poorly aligned regulations to support technology innovation and market penetration was a key point of consensus among ICEPAG stakeholders, and a takeaway that also resonates with the clean transportation industry.

UCI has found that converting its campus bus fleet to battery electric vehicles improves its microgrid’s performance while supporting its climate goals.

The Microgrid Option for Electric Fleets

Microgrids offer several possible advantages for electric fleets. UCI has found that converting its campus bus fleet to battery electric vehicles improves its microgrid’s performance while supporting its climate goals. FuelCell Energy suggested that the cost of transformer upgrades to support larger fleets’ electrification can exceed the cost of a microgrid, particularly if carbon credits are available. While these are promising projects, further research on these systems, including the direct vehicle-to-grid connection, is required to assess the full opportunity, and ICEPAG expects that these will be increasingly prevalent topics at future events.

For more information visit UCI’s APEP program and the annual ICEPAG event.

[1] http://engineering.uci.edu/news/2018/2/uci-islands-its-microgrid-southern-california-edison-grid