Here in the United States, we take our grid power for granted. But in countries like India and South Africa, grid power can go down on a daily basis, forcing residential and commercial property owners to generate their own backup electricity on an as-needed basis -- usually from diesel generators -- if they want to keep lights, refrigerators, business-critical desktop computers and other systems running.
What’s that backup power worth to the residents and tenants of properties that supply it? Without technology to measure how much they’re using and when, it’s hard to say. Being able to track and control the interplay of power generation and consumption at these sites, on the other hand, could help turn backup power from a necessary evil into an asset to be measured, managed and even sold back to the struggling grid as a stabilizing resource.
That’s the idea behind two new “microgrid” projects -- a 335-home gated community in Hyderabad, India and a 240-store shopping mall in Johannesburg, South Africa -- announced Wednesday by Echelon. The San Jose, Calif.-based maker of building control and smart grid technologies is, essentially, providing a smart meter to each home and store in those deployments to allow the property owners to measure, and price, their backup generator power for each individual customer.
It’s a fairly simple example of microgrid technology, compared to cutting-edge projects underway as part of Japan’s Smart City Projects program, or the University of California at San Diego’s solar-powered, battery-backed microgrid, or the fine-tuned building energy management and power market-connected systems being tested at Philadelphia’s Drexel University (PDF).
Nor are these projects expected to supply all the power to communities that lack any grid connections at all, as we’ve seen with projects like SharedSolar, a Columbia University Earth Institute project connecting African villages to solar panels via SMS networks.
But then again, Echelon’s projects aren’t experiments -- they’re up and running today, said Varun Nagaraj, Echelon’s senior vice president of product management. They’re also aimed at improving the performance of a very typical set-up for developing economies, a property backed up by a diesel generator, in a low-cost way. A market for that kind of technology could emerge a lot more quickly than that for the more cutting-edge microgrid technologies now being tested in Japan, Europe and the U.S.
Echelon is providing its Control Operating System (COS) to connect smart meters to central control systems built by its local partners, Grene Robotics in India and Power Meter Technics (PMT) in South Africa, Nagaraj said. The idea is to provide each homeowner or store tenant a real-time view of how much power they’re using, and to allow the property owner to price backup power in a way that better reflects their cost of providing it.
In the case of South Africa’s Clearwater Mall, the microgrid has been set up to help the mall owner better manage the rolling blackouts that utility Eskom has been forced to institute because of an imbalance of power supply and power demand. Usually, property owners simply provide the power, add up the costs, and incorporate them into tenants’ rents on a per-square-foot basis.
Being able to charge real-time prices for backup power brings each individual tenant in line with the true costs of that backup power, Nagaraj said. It also allows store owners to reduce their own power use in response -- a marriage of real-time prices and real-time behavior that should, in theory, make the entire system more efficient.
The same concept applies to India’s Palm Meadows community, one of many high-end residential developments that provide backup power to manage that country’s notoriously unreliable grid, he said.
At first blush, this sounds like a bad deal for residents and tenants -- after all, they’re being charged more for backup power they used to get at the lower price of regular grid power.
But for property owners, being able to share real costs with those tenants should make backup power a more secure investment, Nagaraj noted. That, in turn, could help spread its use beyond the higher-end applications to which it’s limited today.
Being able to share real costs with tenants could also allow property owners to look to solar panels, on-site biomass generation, and other greener sources of local power as viable alternatives to diesel generators, he said.
Compared to Echelon’s other smart grid business lines, enabling microgrids is still in its infancy. But over time, it’s possible that microgrids of this nature could shift from keeping their own lights on to actually supporting the grids they’re connected to, Nagaraj said.
We’re seeing an interesting evolution of the smart grid on that front, with utilities building out their own networks from central offices out to customers, at the same time as energy-smart building technologies begin to connect to those central systems.
Microgrids, whether they’re simple backup power units at industrial, commercial or residential sites, or state-of-the-art combinations of green power, energy management and electricity market interfaces, are likely to be the places where we first start to see this integration take place.