Government officials in Montgomery County, Maryland don’t have to speculate about the importance of energy resilience. In 2012 a derecho hit the mid-Atlantic, leading to the deaths of 13 people. The derecho also caused extended power outages for more than 250,000 residents, and this combined with the extremely hot temperatures led to an additional 29 deaths.

In the aftermath of the storm, Montgomery County launched an aggressive effort to improve resilience at its expansive government facilities. Part of the wide-ranging solution the county ultimately settled on and completed last year was to combine electric vehicle (EV) charging with the construction of two microgrids at critical government buildings. 

“Microgrids play a much bigger role in our energy mix today than just backup power. They are also critical to resilience, adding value-added services and suring up the existing grid at distributed points,” says Mark Feasel, vice president of electric utilities and smart grid for Schneider Electric, which teamed up with Duke Energy Renewables to install the microgrids and EV chargers. “For the transportation industry these benefits translate to enabling fleet electrification at scale. We can now ensure fleets have the infrastructure behind them to support sustained growth."

Every EV charger certainly doesn’t need a microgrid. But as businesses, municipalities and port authorities evolve their infrastructure and achieve their electrification goals, microgrids provide flexibility in terms of power and cost savings that a conventional connection to the distribution grid may not. In return, EVs may also provide power and ancillary services under the right conditions to further maximize the benefit of the microgrid.

Fleet charging

Although Sila Kiliccote has never managed a fleet of vehicles, she spends most of her days thinking about them. Kiliccote is founder and CEO of eIQ Mobility, a San Jose, California-based startup whose mission is to demystify, simplify and accelerate the electrification of fleets.

Electrifying a fleet and providing adequate charging requires a deep knowledge about vehicle routes, locations where charging will take place, available electrical distribution infrastructure, existing facility electricity usage, utility rates, insurance, federal and state policies, and vehicle costs.

“If a fleet manager is going to electrify, they need to coordinate with facility managers. Instead of getting fuel from a gas station, they get it from a building or meter under someone else’s management, and that coordination is hard,” says Kiliccote. “These are two very deep experts in their subject areas and they don’t always talk to one another.”

A microgrid may, at first, seem like an unnecessary add-on to the complex process of electrifying fleets. But microgrids offer a way to lessen or even eliminate the complexity of fleet electrification, especially if charging will happen at existing facilities.

“Microgrids can help with power availability if the distribution grid can’t accommodate those loads. You can bring in a microgrid and not need a system upgrade,” says Kiliccote. “This also can give fleets some control and predictability around their expenses.”

This is particularly true when microgrids and charging infrastructure are supplied through an energy-as-a-service arrangement, which allows energy offtakers to receive the benefits of microgrids and vehicle charging, including a locked-in energy rate for the duration of a long-term contract, without any upfront capital expenditures.

Port authorities

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has ambitious electrification and carbon emission reduction goals. As part of its efforts to achieve a 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, the Port Authority is in the process of electrifying 100 percent of its airport shuttle buses and 50 percent of its light-duty vehicle fleet by 2025.  It is also piloting the electrification of cargo handling and ground support equipment.

While similarities exist between how fleets and ports can benefit from microgrids to electrify their vehicles and equipment, each has their own specific nuances.

“A typical fleet will have depot charging and a public charging network to support the delivery of goods and people,” says Kiliccote. “Airports and ports are more closed, and you can’t imagine that all of the vehicles will be charged at the same location. It just won’t happen. It’ll probably be more of a case of distributed microgrids rather than one big one so that shuttle buses and cargo carriers and other vehicles with different usage patterns and locations can be served by different microgrids.”

Some vehicles, for instance, will only be used during the day and can be charged overnight with Level 1 or 2 chargers, while others will require DC fast-charging because they are needed on a more continuous basis.

Feasel notes that the primary grid will remain critical in serving the loads of electric vehicles and equipment at ports and airports. But, in order to provide resilience services and achieve targeted emissions reductions, microgrids that use clean energy will be necessary.

“Besides the buses and trucks ports use, look at the tug tows and anti-icing machines that are using diesel today,” he says. “They are very inefficient and expensive and have terrible sustainability. Converting those start-and-stop vehicles to electric and thinking about a microgrid that can provide lower-carbon electricity than the grid helps improve overall efficiency and achieves those goals.”

Multifamily housing and corporate headquarters

The attractiveness of EVs is not only increasing for fleet owners. Last year was a breakout year for U.S. EV sales, with an increase of 81 percent over 2017. As more and more drivers opt to go electric, the need for ample charging at residences and businesses is rising.

In large urban cities, microgrids may be necessary because sufficient power to charge vehicles may not be available. “In dense areas with large buildings, power is less available and solutions that bypass that issue will be preferable, so long as the costs aren’t higher than the benefits,” says Kiliccote.

At Schneider’s North American Research and Development Center in Andover, Massachusetts, the company built a microgrid combining natural-gas generators, storage, rooftop and parking canopy solar, as well as chargers to make it more attractive for employees to purchase EVs.

Besides showcasing what’s possible, it was financially appealing to Schneider. “Microgrids help make becoming more sustainable affordable. We were able to use the microgrid to simplify distributed power delivery in a way that reduced our overall costs, increased our ability to maintain business continuity and allowed us to move toward our energy future through one solution,” says Feasel.

Possibilities around linking charging with microgrids will likely only increase over the next few years, as EVs continue to get cheaper and microgrid development becomes faster, more efficient and modular.