by Jeff St. John
August 29, 2019

In Canada’s capitol, utility Hydro Ottawa is in the midst of testing out a distributed, digitally connected energy ecosystem.

It’s starting small, with a handful of homes equipped with smart thermostats, smart water heaters, rooftop solar panels, and behind-the-meter batteries. But those distributed energy resources (DERs) are being monitored and controlled via a utility network, and are able to respond within seconds to wireless commands. 

Right now, that flexibility is linked to the transformer serving the four test homes, largely to make sure that if it’s asking water heaters and electric baseboard heaters to shut down to help it reduce peak loads, it doesn’t let any one home get too cold for too long. But Hydro Ottawa is also integrating the data flows from these devices into the SCADA systems serving its distribution grid, with an eye on coordinating household loads, batteries and solar inverters. 

And as a final stage in the project, it’s working with startup Opus One Solutions to build a transactive energy market, one that could price, bid, dispatch and reward behavior from consumers and devices based on this real-world data.

At least that’s the long-term vision for the MiGen Transactive Grid project. 

Originally launched in 2017 as the “GRide Edge Active Transactional Demand Response,” or GREAT-DR, project, MiGen quietly completed Phase 1 of its deployment this summer, Mark Fernandes, Hydro Ottawa’s chief information and technology officer, said in a recent interview. 

That includes getting the Ottawa Community Housing Corp. as a partner, and signing up its first four test families to have the DERs installed and activated. As of this summer, the test homes were effectively collecting and transmitting data to each other and the utility, as well as responding to demand response commands. 

“We’ve signed up with a bunch of partners to build a platform we believe will democratize the grid in lots of different ways,” Fernandes said. 

From DER management to transactive energy

Each unit has a 5.5-kilowatt AC solar array and inverter linked with a behind-the-meter battery system with a practical capacity of about 7 kilowatt-hours, explained Raed Abdullah, MiGen project lead engineer. It also connects baseboard electric heaters and electric water heaters, which Hydro Ottawa has been able to control to reduce each home’s electric load by 22 percent — “and it’s not heating season yet,” he noted. 

While the utility hasn’t disclosed the name brands of the equipment being installed, its partner list includes a number of potential suppliers, including Panosonic Eco Solutions as a likely energy storage provider. It features mostly Canadian companies, including residential energy storage provider Stash Energy, microinverter maker Sparq Systems, renewable energy management software provider BluWave, solar developer Quadra Power, and smart thermostats from Energate, now owned by Canadian smart metering and grid communications provider Tantalus.

Now it’s getting underway with Phase 2 of the project, funded in part with a C$5 million ($3.75 million) federal grant from Natural Resources Canada’s Smart Grid program. Under the terms of that grant, the project’s goals are to achieve a community microgrid, able to store energy for backup against power outages, as well as conduct transactions with their neighbors or the grid at large. 

Phase 2, which will run through 2021, will concentrate on expanding the scope of the project, and operationalizing the DER control capabilities to tackle two key tasks, Fernandes said. The first will be to “manage and monitor transactions at the local distribution company level. That allows us to better manage and monitor loads on the grid edge.” 

This is a significant differentiation for MiGen, he noted. Most smart thermostat or water heater-based demand response programs are calling on customers to help reduce system-wide peaks, not local distribution grid constraints or needs. The same goes for the majority of behind-the-meter DER aggregations involving solar PV and batteries, for that matter. 

To build this coordinated DER-grid system, Hydro Ottawa hired Toronto, Canada-based Opus One this summer. The company has provided its real-time, two-way power flow modeling of distribution circuits for projects including National Grid’s distributed system platform pilot in Buffalo, New York, transactive microgrids in Nova Scotia, and most recently, with Hawaiian Electric to apply its data to the utility’s integrated distribution planning needs. 

Opus One’s first task with MiGen will be to create location and time-specific price signals to coordinate the dispatch of the participating DERs in ways that align with grid needs. This will likely lean on the startup’s work with National Grid on creating a locational marginal price for the distribution grid, or “LMP+D,” Hari Suthan Subramaniam, Opus One’s chief strategic growth and policy officer, said in an interview. 

Compared to its National Grid project, which is geared around larger-scale hospital backup power and cogeneration systems, Hydro Ottawa’s MiGen offers “more endpoints, more control, and more visibility from piggybacking on their existing telemetry and SCADA to most of the DERs they have,” Subramaniam noted. 

That will provide more data to guide the platform in its task of stabilizing the grid from feeder to feeder.

Of course, the real-world grid impacts of this kind of control will depend on many factors, including how many customers end up signing up for the pilot, their mix of DERs, and their network location relative to specific circuits and substations.

Ontario policy uncertainty

Fernandes noted that Hydro Ottawa and Opus One are still in the early stages of the project, and haven’t yet codified the kinds of grid services they’ll be seeking to provide from their orchestration of DERs. That means they also haven’t yet put forward any specific ideas for the final part of the MiGen plan — creating the marketplace to allow customers to earn a reward for their DERs’ contribution to the grid.

“The third goal, which is sort of a stretch goal for us, is to work with the Opus Ones of the world to pilot a transactive energy framework,” Fernandes said. “If you’ve got customers with solar on their roofs, storage in their basements, and inverters that communicate to a platform we’ve built, not only will we better understand loads on the grid edge, but perhaps, there could be a role for us to play in terms of understanding how transactions can take place.”

Opus One is working on similar transactive energy concepts as part of other projects, such as its work with Illinois utility Ameren, Subramaniam noted. But the MiGen project is different, in that “they want to bring online a marketplace in less than two and a half years. This is not a simulation, this is not paperwork.” 

Another notable aspect of the MiGen project is that it isn’t being mandated on Hydro Ottawa by a regulator, he noted. “This is ahead of regulatory change. It’s geared toward system benefits, it's geared toward Hydro Ottawa potentially buying power locally, and it’s geared toward helping them support their grid.”

Ontario has seen a sharp reversal in its renewable energy policies since last year, after new Premier Doug Ford, who led the Conservative party to victory partly on a platform to reduce utility bills, eliminated the province’s cap and trade program. This led to the cancellation of 758 early-stage clean energy contracts, and cut funding to hundreds more clean energy and efficiency programs in the province. 

Even so, Ontario has about 4,000 megawatts of distributed energy resources, Fernandes said. That’s mostly solar PV, but also a fair share of smaller scale wind power, and a small but growing amount of energy storage, both at a commercial and a residential level. 

As a distribution utility serving a fairly small city, “we want to be the upside of any innovation taking place in the distributed energy space." After all, the same energy cost concerns that helped drive last year’s election results will continue to drive Hydro Ottawa customers to seek out rooftop solar, energy efficiency and other cost-reducing tools, he noted.

A transactive energy platform that can link Hydro Ottawa’s grid needs to payments for behind-the-meter DERs might be another such tool for price-conscious customers, he noted.

“We’re hoping we can create some sort of platform that can help.”