Navigant Research Blog

Cautiously, Private Utilities Dip Toes into Microgrid Pool

Peter Asmus — December 16, 2014

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory statistics show that 80% to 90% of all grid failures begin at the distribution level of electricity service.  While utilities can resolve these issues through a variety of technologies, their historic bias against the concept of intentional islanding – or cutting off certain systems from the wider grid – has precluded them from considering microgrids in the past.

That has changed over the last 3 years.  The extreme storms that pounded the East Coast beginning in 2011 have led the states of Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey to initiate resiliency programs that promote microgrids as a key element of their strategy.

Unfortunately, the concept of community resiliency or public purpose microgrids often violates utility franchise rules, since power would have to be sent over public rights of ways.  Connecting, for example, a gas station to a high school serving as an emergency shelter and a hospital could get the operator of this impromptu microgrid in trouble.

So, by way of necessity, utilities clearly have to play a role in these kinds of microgrids.  Furthermore, the hype about the utility death spiral is prompting many utilities to examine new regulatory structures and business models to accommodate the growth in third-party distributed energy resources (DER).

The Revolution Will Be Distributed

As a result, Navigant Research has issued a new report, Utility Distribution Microgrids (or UDMs).  While public power UDMs – both grid-tied and remote – are a larger market today and are expected to be in the future than systems deployed by investor-owned utilities (IOUs), the most interesting segment are these latter private systems, due to the regulatory issues they raise and because these large companies tend to move markets.

In conversations with utilities, the messages I’ve heard have changed dramatically.  When I initially researched this topic more than 2 years ago, the biggest concern about microgrids revolved around technology and intentional islanding, a concept that was anathema to utilities whose grid codes were designed to prevent customers from sealing themselves off from the larger distribution grids.  Worker safety, loss of customer load, and stranded investments in centralized generation also came up.

Today, many utilities cite these same issues, but growing numbers realize the DER revolution is picking up momentum and that microgrids that are owned or controlled by utilities could help them fulfill their mission to provide low-cost, reliable power.

Convincing the Regulators

The IOUs exploring microgrids include Arizona Public Service, Consolidated Edison, Duke Energy, NRG Energy, and San Diego Gas & Electric.  The primary challenge for an IOU today in implementing a UDM is justifying a microgrid under traditional rate-based regulation.  How can the utility convince state regulators that investing ratepayer funds into a project that directly benefits a small subset of customers will also benefit the wider customer base?  Even if a valid business case can be made, the typical 3-year rate case state regulatory proceeding business model may retard near-term innovation.

This IOU UDM segment offers the largest potential growth of any UDM segment, since it helps address the need for new technology solutions to address explosive growth in DER.  But it also faces the largest regulatory question marks.

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