Microgrids get a lot of lip service at clean energy conferences, even if real-world applications are mostly in the pilot phase. Whether they are defined as generation paired with some storage or mini electrical grids with sophisticated, automated controls, many industry experts, from utility executives to engineers, increasingly see microgrids as an inevitable part of the changing global electric system.
There are many issues to work through, including developing standards for interconnecting the disparate technologies, building business cases that quantify resiliency, and bringing down the cost of energy storage.
At the 2014 ARPA-E Energy Summit outside of Washington, D.C., microgrids came up at various panels, even though specific microgrid solutions are not an integral part of the ARPA-E funding (bringing down the cost of batteries and renewable integration, however, are the goals of two of the ARPA-E programs).
While the world watches the advances made by deep-pocketed defense departments and billionaires, here are ten of the most telling quotes from the ARPA-E Summit about where microgrids are today and what it will take to move them from buzzword to infrastructure reality in the coming years.
Jim Galvin, program manager of energy and water for the U.S. DOD’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, on early technology challenges:
“Microgrids matter to the DOD because reliability matters,” he said. “But once you start diving down into the technology, it becomes very difficult. We’re interested in investing in the technology, but also figuring out the business model. They are expensive.”
Robyn Beavers, founder of Station A Group and SVP of innovation at NRG Energy, on the value of microgrids:
“We see resiliency and safety as design requirements. That’s the bare minimum, but not necessarily what [customers will] pay for.”
Haresh Kamath, program manager for energy storage and distributed generation at the Electric Power Research Institute, on technical issues:
“We’re looking at it closely, but there are some obstacles. Some are technical; we need some control technologies. We’d like to see it more broadly implemented. From an economic standpoint, there’s still a question of where and when they make sense.”
David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, on building simple microgrids that pair storage withsolar:
“In Haiti, the cost of storing electricity is killing us.”
John Hewa, CEO of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas, on re-envisioning the grid for the future:
“There will be embedded energy storage [at every layer of the grid],” he said. “It will be a collection of microgrids.”
Sumit Bose, senior electrical systems engineer at GE Global Research, on microgrids as complete systems that incorporate renewables, waste heat recovery and efficiency:
“This holistic view is very important. It’s not just electricity. It’s heating and cooling energy,” he said. “That’s the holy grail. How do you trade that with the risk of not having a resilient system?”
Peter Davidson, executive director of the Loan Programs Office at the U.S. Department of Energy, on microgrids as part of the loan program’s $8 billion solicitation for advanced fossil fuel energy projects:
“We hope we get some applications for the microgrid area. A microgrid with a fuel cell that’s fueled by natural gas certainly applies,” he said. “There are certain parts of the country right now where installing a microgrid makes great economic sense.”
Daniel C. Esty, commissioner of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, on building the business case for microgrids in Connecticut and beyond:
“What will make this work is understanding that it’s a package deal. It’s combined heat and power, it’s storage; it’s demand reduction.”
Joseph M. Rigby, president and CEO of Pepco:
“Going forward, we want to support microgrids. We don’t see distributed generation as a threat.”
David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, on microgrids that bring together solar and natural gas generation for the home:
"There are already 40 million homes tied to a natural gas system. All they need is a gizmo in the basement to make electricity,” he said. “Then you tell your electric utility to go jump in the lake.”