Microgrids could be a very useful tool for integrating distributed energy resources such as solar PV, backup generators, behind-the-meter batteries and other grid-edge technologies. But to share those capabilities with the grid at large, microgrid-owning customers need some kind of technology platform to connect them with utilities and grid operators -- and to allow them to make money while they do it.

On Tuesday, Siemens became the latest grid giant to offer its own answer to this challenge, in the form of its Spectrum Power 7 Microgrid Management System. The new platform extends Siemens’ advanced distribution management software (ADMS) for utilities down to the level of individual microgrids, whether they’re organized around campuses, communities or other discrete entities not traditionally tied into grid control platforms.

“It’s a small control center for microgrids, to operate distributed energy resources, and also to have them participate in the energy market,” Thomas Zimmermann, CEO of Siemens Smart Grid Solutions & Services, said in a Monday interview. This involves a lot of discrete tasks, from keeping local energy resources operating smoothly as a self-contained unit, to optimizing their use to sell power back to energy markets in 15-minute or hourly increments.

Siemens is no stranger to these complex tasks, and has been running a larger-scale “virtual power plant” with utility RWE in Germany for years now. But that project was organized at the utility scale, while the new microgrid platform is aimed at the individual site’s needs, Zimmermann said. Here's a screenshot from the user's view, showing all the data that goes into managing an islanded, grid-connected system.

As for where Siemens is putting its microgrid platform to use, Mike Carlson, head of Siemens Smart Grid, North America, said the company’s longest-running project is on the island of Hawaii. That’s where Siemens is working with the Parker Ranch and the town of Waimea on a plan to tap geothermal, solar and wind resources for their their local power needs, while supporting the island’s utility as well.

Siemens is also a partner on Duke Energy’s “Coalition of the Willing II” project, which has brought 25 companies together to create common standards for building a microgrid out of interoperable parts. Several projects with unnamed European partners are also in the works, and Siemens is keeping a close eye on New York, where far-reaching utility reforms are opening new opportunities for microgrids to flourish, Carlson said.

“We want to make microgrids a sort of boundless environment,” Carlson said. “You can look at it as a mini-distribution system. Similar to our ADMS capabilities, we’re able to take those same algorithms and monitoring and control to optimize at an asset level.”

Siemens is far from alone in tackling the microgrid challenge, of course. General Electric, ABB, S&C Electric, Toshiba and Schneider Electric are a few of the competing grid players with projects and platforms to integrate distributed energy resources in various ways.

Meanwhile, Siemens is also looking at ways to manage the voltage fluctuations that can occur on distribution grids -- and it’s turning to a new partner to help out. That’s Utilidata, the Providence, Rhode Island-based company with a distributed, automated volt/VAR optimization technology platform now in use by utilities including AEP and National Grid.

Under the global reseller agreement announced Tuesday, Siemens will now offer its customers Utilidata’s voltage optimization software through its Energy Automation line of business. That includes a whole host of grid gear used to manage voltages on distribution circuits like capacitors and voltage regulators, as well as switches, fuses, automatic reclosers, synchrophasors, and other pieces of Siemens’ broader energy automation equipment portfolio.

Unlike most of the “model-based” volt/VAR optimization and conservation voltage reduction systems now in use, Utilidata deploys sensors in the distribution grid that provide constant feedback about real-world conditions, Carlson said. Tying Utilidata's software into Siemens’ ADMS and energy management system platforms allows for a whole host of potential uses for Utilidata’s core voltage management capabilities, including the data that its grid-deployed sensors collect, he noted.

“Analytics is included in all these areas -- we’re very much pushing analytics in the cloud,” he said, building on the cloud-based analytics that Siemens company eMeter has been providing for smart meter data management, revenue protection, power quality monitoring, and other such utility tasks.n