California Aims to Simplify and Standardize Microgrids

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Cars have standard configurations: vans, mini-vans, and sports cars. Can we standardize microgrids the same way?

That’s one of the issues that was explored Tuesday in the second of five workshops organized by the California Energy Commission in its effort to map out microgrid policy.

“We may find in microgrids, there are four or five configurations that are common. It might be more cost-effective for people to pick one of these standard configurations. The basic question is to understand and define where microgrids provide the most value and meet the biggest need,” said Mike Gravely, deputy division chief of the California Energy Commission’s research and development division.

About 100 stakeholders attended the six-hour workshop in person, and at least that many participated online, in a discussion titled, “Why are Customers Choosing Microgrids and How are they Working?”

Microgrid owners and users – including about a dozen US military representatives — discussed their microgrid strategies and challenges with representatives of the energy commission, California Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent System Operator.

“People want to understand where microgrids fit it; they’re not an answer for everyone,” Gravely said, in an interview following the workshop.

The state is interested in finding the low-hanging fruit for microgrids — scenarios in which they would be most cost-effective.

“The map will identify the options that will make the most sense,” Gravely said.

Hospitals offer an example.

“At the workshop, I learned that hospitals have more back-up requirements than other places; they have to have all emergency equipment on backup. Hospitals are investing in these type of services. Microgrids may be able to do this at a lower cost,” he said.

Finding a replicable approach would involve identifying standardized options for microgrids, he said. The state hopes to glean ways to standardize microgrids from seven demonstration projects funded by the Department of Energy a year ago. The projects had to meet certain criteria, such as achieving high penetration of renewables connected to the grid.

“What are the options for making things simpler?” Gravely said. “We’ll learn from these projects as we get more and more into a standard configuration.”

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Technology–especially controllers–also was a hot topic at this week’s workshop.

“People were asking about how to pick controllers and how many are out there,” Gravely said. “Microgrid managers talked about how they picked their controller and covered key criteria for helping people weed through different microgrid controllers.”

Such help is especially useful because controllers can cost a few thousand or a hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Participants weren’t just looking for help choosing controllers; they wanted help in general about how to configure and develop microgrids, Gravely said.

The group explored how microgrids may generate income from excess generation. While it was clear that it doesn’t make sense to build a microgrid solely to bid the energy into ISO markets, it does make sense to sell excess energy to the marketplace, Gravely said.

Government incentives were also an important topic. Most of the speakers who had developed microgrids said they couldn’t have done it without some incentives, he said.

“Just like renewables did years ago, microgrids need incentives. There’s still a need right now for some government involvement,” he said.

Tuesday’s participants also discussed cost-benefit analyses, performance assessments, renewable energy integration and cybersecurity practices.

During the next meeting, the participants will identify  key elements of microgrid policy for the roadmap. “What are the barrier and cost factors? It was very clear at the workshop that people want to understand if and how to develop microgrids.”

The idea for the California microgrid road map sprang from a report, “Microgrid Assessments and Recommendations to Guide Future Investment,” issued by the commission last year, and prepared by DNV GL.

The commission has created similar road maps for energy storage and vehicle-to-grid integration.

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