DistribuTech, the giant utility and smart grid trade show, is becoming an equally important venue for smart building and microgrid technologies. That makes sense, given that the line separating utilities and their energy-equipped customers is becoming blurrier every day.
Consider these two announcements coming out of this year’s DistribuTech conference in Orlando, each approaching the utility-customer microgrid nexus from different directions.
On one side, you’ve got Blue Pillar, which has built a business testing, networking and automating all manner of backup generators and other energy resources at hospitals, military bases and commercial and industrial clients. On Tuesday, the Indianapolis-based startup announced it’s turning that technology platform, dubbed Aurora, over to energy service providers and utility grid operators.
That includes integration of typical utility protocols like DNP 3.0, OpenADR 2.0a and ICCP with its support of building-side protocols such as OPC UA, Modbus, SNMP, LonWorks, and BACnet. Blue Pillar is also releasing what it calls its “Facility of the Future Framework” to ease the networking of behind-the-meter systems with utility and energy services provider control systems.
It’s already doing this kind of work with NRG Energy, the giant U.S. energy company, which is implementing Blue Pillar’s system at various C&I customer sites. And while NRG has recently fired its green-minded CEO and scaled way back on its renewable and home energy business ambitions, its work with Blue Pillar is contained within its energy services unit, which isn’t facing the same cutbacks, Blue Pillar CEO Tom Willie said in an interview last week.
According to the CEO, over the past few years, companies like NRG have been saying, “We understand you can connect behind-the-meter assets better, faster and cheaper than most people -- and we have services that rely on connecting behind-the-meter assets for customers." The technology platform Blue Pillar has unveiled this week meets those needs, he said -- “I would call it a DERMS [distributed energy resource management software] platform, plus a centralized services management platform. That’s how it’s being used on the unregulated retail side.”
Blue Pillar, like rivals such as Enbala, Viridity, Innovari, or the recently acquired Powerit Solutions, are searching for utility-scale partners to bring their behind-the-meter energy connectivity to scale. They’re also competing against -- or in some cases, partnering with -- demand response providers such as EnerNOC and Comverge, and energy services giants like Honeywell, Schneider Electric, Siemens and Johnson Controls/Tyco.
This push upward from buildings to utilities is also happening in reverse, as utilities and the big grid vendors that serve them are reaching into buildings for enhanced visibility and control. Grid giant Siemens announced Tuesday its latest push into this field with the launch of its microgrid-as-a-service for university campuses, cities, C&I sites and the utilities that want to connect them.
“It’s the same advanced platform that a utility could use,” is how Michael Carlson, president of Siemens Digital Grid, described the new, smaller customer-focused version of its microgrid service launched last year. But it’s hosted in the cloud, which makes it accessible to customers who can’t afford their own on-site IT infrastructure, he noted. That “could prevent some problems for a smaller utility or campus that doesn’t want to put a whole tech team together to do a microgrid.”
At the same time, it’s built on Siemens’ utility-grade software suite, and includes the grid planning and design capabilities of Power Technologies International (PTI), a Siemens subsidiary that’s been in the business for some 40 years, he said. “Asset owners and grid operators are going to come to the conclusion that if they manage these pieces of the grid together, they’re going to get a higher level of optimization.”
Once again, Siemens is in competition with giant grid rivals like General Electric, ABB, S&C Electric, Toshiba and Schneider Electric to deliver this kind of integrated, optimized approach to microgrids. There’s certainly a growing need for this kind of integration, given the steady growth of behind-the-meter energy resources as a significant share of the country’s energy mix.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration has shown (PDF) that the amount of distributed generation assets located on U.S. commercial and industrial sites has grown 400 percent from 2010 to 2015, including solar, wind, microturbines, fuel cells and conventional natural-gas-fired combined-heat-and-power systems. That rate of growth is only going to increase, and making it an integral part of utility operations may be the defining challenge of what Greentech Media has dubbed the grid edge.