Navigant Research Blog

Alaska Builds a Microgrid Future

— April 15, 2015

Alaska was in the midst of a heat wave when I arrived there in early March, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, and reaching 40 °F  the day I left. The lack of snow forced the annual Iditarod dog sled race to a new route farther north, a sign many locals attributed to global climate change.

I went to Alaska because the state is ground zero for microgrids, with more deployed here than any other state in the United States, with some nearly 100% supplied with renewable energy. Alaska’s often harsh environment means that microgrid performance can literally be a life-or-death situation. When one such system failed more than a decade ago in Kotzebue, a city with a population of 3,700 and located 30 miles above the Arctic Circle, the entire water and wastewater system froze, and it took months to bring water back online.

Call to Arms

Held in Anchorage, the Islanded Grid Wind Power Conference demonstrated that Alaska can show the rest of the world how to create more resilient and sustainable power systems in the face of immense logistical challenges. While the rest of the world seems to be turning to solar power, wind is still king in Alaska, where towns like Kotzebue only have 35 days during summer where the sun rises above the horizon.

Most microgrids in Alaska are run by utilities—rural cooperatives, municipal utilities, or Native Alaska village corporations. Some of these entities, especially tiny villages on remote islands, have limited operational capacity, so technology choices must be wise and easily reparable. That’s why some companies, such as Intelligent Energy Systems, often rely upon older turbines that can be fixed the old fashioned way: with a wrench.

Beyond Diesel

Other companies, such as TDX Power, an Alaskan Native corporation created by individuals whose ancestors were the slaves of Russian fur trappers, are building innovative wind heating systems that validate the thermal energy benefits microgrids bring to the table. They’re also investigating new business models, given that Alaska is now about $4 billion in the red due to declining oil prices. Ironically enough, this shortfall is limiting future financial support for renewable energy development, forcing developers to find creative microgrid financing solutions.

Perhaps the most interesting company I saw was Innovus Power of Fremont, California. Innovus offers variable-speed diesel generators that come embedded with what is, in essence, a microgrid controller capable of supporting renewable penetration levels of up to 100%. Leveraging power converter innovation from Northern Power, the company says its gensets can eliminate the need for curtailment or expensive energy storage, and can serve as backbones for microgrids that combine dispatchable power and renewable integration capabilities.

Governor Bill Walker pointed out that while Alaska has more energy resources than any other U.S. state, its power prices are the highest. Microgrids integrating renewable energy are a key part of the future strategy to change that situation.

 

Community Resilience and the Future of Small Grids

— February 19, 2015

The spate of extreme weather events in recent years has stirred up interest in the concept of “community resilience”—i.e., the creation of more reliable and resilient power grids. The debate rages on how best to provide such services. In a forthcoming report, as well as a webinar on March 17, Navigant Research will analyze and forecast the size of the market for one of the most promising pathways forward: community resilience microgrids (CRMs).

Ground Up

The drive for increased grid resilience comes from community stakeholders, many of whom also value energy independence, sustainability, and local economic development goals. In New York, crowds as large as 100 to 150 people have shown up at recent community meetings, often braving snowstorms, to learn how they can become involved in developing greater resilience at the community level.

This is the segment of microgrids where the most innovation will occur in terms of business models and regulatory reforms. Why? Many of these systems challenge utility franchise rules that prohibit transfers of power services over public rights-of-ways. It may make inherent sense, in terms of both emergency responses and sustainable urban design schemes, to bundle different kinds of customers served by different utility rate classes into a single microgrid. Such novel aggregations, however, bump up against long-standing utility prohibitions on sharing of power.

Smaller Is Better

In essence, each third-party CRM requires a negotiated settlement and special use exemptions (though there are a few interesting exceptions to this generalization).

It is these issues that are at the core of New York’s Reform the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding, perhaps the most comprehensive review of regulations pertaining to resiliency in the nation.

Some providers, such as the Clean Energy Group, argue that microgrids are the wrong focus, asserting that solar PV and energy storage nanogrids, such as those recently funded in Massachusetts, are a better solution. In the short term, this may be the wiser move, especially if they could be aggregated via a centralized control schemes into virtual power plants.

Such nanogrids represent modular building blocks for energy services that support applications like emergency power for commercial buildings, as described in Navigant Research’s report, Nanogrids. These grids typically serve a single building or a single load, generally below 100 kW in capacity—and thus do not violate regulations prohibiting the transfer or sharing of power across a public right-of-way.

Unquestionably, small grids (including both microgrids and nanogrids) represent a major element of the future of the power sector—an essential building block for the Energy Cloud that will encompass distributed generation resources and intelligent networks to meet energy demand, rather than centralized hub-and-spoke power grids. This spring, Navigant will offer a new collaborative study called The Future of Small Scale Microgrids and Nanogrids that will bring together utilities and their suppliers to better understand the risks and opportunities of this emerging market landscape. Click here for more information.

 

California Sets an Ambitious Energy Agenda

— January 9, 2015

Living in California, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t always see things in the same way.  Given the ambitious energy and climate change goals outlined in Governor Brown’s inaugural address on January 5, this divergence may only grow.

What exactly did the governor propose?  Here’s a snapshot summary of targets he set for the state by 2030:

  • Increase from one-third to one-half the portion of the state’s electricity derived from renewable sources
  • Reduce today’s petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50%
  • Double the efficiency of energy use in existing buildings while also making building heating fuels cleaner

The Center of Innovation

For investors in and developers of clean energy technology, Brown’s targets mean that California will continue to lead the United States in terms of R&D and commercialization of renewable energy, electric vehicles, and smart building automation products.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for skeptics of Left Coast policy aspirations is that data suggests California is likely to meet its AB 32 goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to 431 million tons by 2020.  While the rest of the world continues to heat up and multilateral emissions reductions efforts by the United Nations in Lima, Peru late last year once again faltered, the only U.S. state to pass climate legislation with concrete objectives appears to be on its way to actually reaching those targets, despite a long list of hiccups and controversies.

Changing the Game

Will California meet Brown’s new goals?  That’s impossible to predict, but the real questions now lie in the details.  I, for one, was delighted to see the governor mention microgrids, since apparently he agrees that distributed renewables (such as rooftop solar PV) will be game changers.  The best way to transform such distributed energy resources from problems for the grid into solutions for climate change – including resilient communities that can keep the lights on during extreme weather events – is through the islanding capabilities of microgrids.

When I first started covering wind power in the ‘80s for the national trade press, I often dealt with skeptical East Coast editors.  “Do those wind turbines really work?” they would ask.  “Isn’t that just one of those California things?”  This was, of course, during Brown’s original tenure as governor, when he was dubbed Governor Moonbeam by the national press.  From a handful of wind farms jump-started by flawed but effective tax credits, a global industry was spawned that now generates an accumulated 321,559 MW of electrical capacity, or just under 3% of the world’s total electricity, according to Navigant Research’s most recent World Market Update report on the wind industry.  That’s up from less than 1% of California’s total electricity in 1985, 30 years ago.

Sometimes, the only way to leap forward is to go out on a limb on the policy front, and then see if entrepreneurs and capital markets are up to the task.  Only time will tell which is the wiser course – the prudent go-slow pace of national politics or the risk-taking adventure being drawn up in Sacramento.  I know where I’m placing my bets.

 

Alaska Leads the World in Microgrid Deployments

— December 17, 2014

Many utilities view microgrids as a threat, due to intentional islanding and/or the effects of reduced customer load on long-term revenue projections.  However, a small but growing number of utilities view the microgrids they own and operate – known as utility distribution microgrids (UDMs) – as the next logical extension of their efforts to deploy smart grid technology.  As I’ve noted earlier, the developed world can learn interesting lessons in this field from the developing world.

Navigant Research’s new report, Utility Distribution Microgrids, shows that the total UDM market represents over $2.4 billion of economic activity today, with the bulk of this investment flowing into projects located in the Asia Pacific region.  As noted in an earlier report, Microgrids, North America is the overall market leader.  Yet, when it comes to utilities, both Asia Pacific and Europe are ahead in near-term deployments and related implementation revenues.  All told, under the base scenario, Navigant Research expects the UDM market to reach $5.8 billion in annual revenue by 2023, growing at a compound annual rate (CAGR) of 10.2%.

However, there’s one important exception to this market generalization: Alaska.

Across the Tundra

“Over the last decade, Alaska has quietly emerged as a global leader in the development and operation of microgrids,” declared Gwen Holdmann, director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in a recent interview.  A particular focus has been hybrid conventional-renewable-storage systems, networks that have “logged more than 2 million hours of continuous operating experience for these types of systems,” according to Holdmann.  The state boasts a portfolio of somewhere between 200 and 250 permanently islanded microgrids ranging from 30 kW – about the size of a city block – to large remote hydro systems over 100 MW in size.  These microgrids, many in operation for over 50 years, provide electric power service exclusively to isolated rural populations.  Total capacity exceeds 800 MW, the largest installed base of microgrids in the world today (though China may overtake Alaska by the end of next year).

Holdmann clearly takes pride in what Alaska has accomplished with these scattered, isolated hybrid power systems, which tap fuels as diverse as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and tidal currents, along with diesel.  While other pundits may point to New York, California, or Hawaii as the centers of North American microgrid development, Alaska has been developing cutting-edge microgrids for quite some time.  “The State of Alaska alone has invested over $250 million in developing and integrating renewable energy projects to serve these microgrids, – far more per capita than any other state in the country,” Holdmann said.

Integration Experts

The advent of advanced technology deployment to these rural systems has forced Alaska utilities and developers to become expert in microgrid development and operation.  By far the greatest challenge was, and remains, the high-penetration integration of intermittent renewables, such as solar, wind, and hydrokinetic, with traditional diesel or natural gas fueled electric power generation.  Nevertheless, Alaskans have repeatedly achieved higher renewable penetration levels than nearly any other place in the world, under incredibly harsh conditions, including daylight hours that shrink to a couple hours a day in the winter and winds that can exceed 100 miles an hour – enough to literally tear apart many conventional wind turbines not designed to stand up to such speeds.

Many Alaskan utilities have set up voluntary goals to reach 70% or 80% renewable penetration within the next 8 to 10 years.  Kodiak Electric Association, which serves Kodiak Island on the southern coast of Alaska, reports that it has achieved 99.7% renewable energy penetration so far in 2014, using a hybrid wind/hydro/diesel/battery/flywheel microgrid.

Mainland U.S. utilities could learn a lot from the innovators up north, where the smart grid is already delivering on the promise of a more cost-effective and sustainable power grid today.

 

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