Navigant Research Blog

Cutting-Edge Microgrid Projects Still Popping up in the United States

— May 26, 2015

The current edition of Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker gives credence to the idea that the Asia Pacific region may emerge as the market leader over the long term, with data collected from projects and project portfolios representing 47% of total global capacity as compared to North America’s 44% total global capacity market share. At present, however, North America remains king when it comes to actual operating projects. If looking at microgrids currently online, North America still leads by holding a nearly identical market share (66%) compared with data presented in the 2Q 2014 Tracker update (65%).

I want to highlight two project entries that show how the United States, due in part to new programs promoting community resilience, is pushing the envelope on both technology and business models.

Blazing the Trail

The first project, located on the East Coast, is a transportation microgrid known as NJ TransitGrid and located in the New Jersey Transit system’s service area. Beyond being America’s third-largest transportation system and serving nearly 900,000 passengers daily, the stretch of rail covered by the project is both an important access point to Manhattan and New York and is one of the most at risk for flooding. Existing railroad right-of-ways could be used to connect distributed generation (DG) from small wind, solar PV, and fuel cells to elevated power substations and energy storage. All of these components will be managed by smart grid technologies to integrate renewables and island the entire system during harsh storms such as Hurricane Sandy. It is anticipated that the system’s total generation capacity will eventually reach 104 MW, making it one of the largest microgrids in the world. New Jersey state officials expect the project to have sufficient capacity to power up rail stations between the cities of Newark and Hoboken, which are approximately 10 miles apart.

The second project is on the West Coast and is known as the Salem Smart Power Center. This project is an example of a partnership approach to development with an investor-owned utility (Portland General Electric) looking to vendors such as Eaton to help integrate battery energy storage solutions to help address the impacts of customer-owned solar PV on the utility’s distribution grid. The project, which incorporates 5 MW of conventional DG, solar PV, and a 5 MW battery, also sought to increase reliability for a mix of business (data center), institutional (National Guard), and residential customers. The resulting energy storage system from Eaton provides seamless support for loads in the event of an upstream outage. The intelligent energy storage system works with standby generators to create a high-reliability zone consisting of a feeder supplying community customers. The energy storage system supports the microgrid for several minutes while generators are started, creating a backup power supply, with tests showing the capability of carrying the entire load during transition to island mode.

Unlike the majority of microgrids deployed to date in the United States, which tend to focus on campus operations, the Power Center is instead seeking to bolster the utility’s reliability. As such, it is classified as a utility distribution microgrid (UDM). One noteworthy factoid derived from the newly published Microgrid Deployment Tracker is that such UDMs now represent 16% of total microgrid operating, planned, and proposed capacity, a segment category ranking only behind remote systems, which are largely deployed in the developing world and unique markets such as Alaska.

 

The Breadbasket Running Dry

— May 22, 2015

NASA scientists recently predicted that California has just 1 year of water left to the catastrophic tune of a million Facebook users simultaneously hitting the Share button. California’s water problems are not entirely self-inflicted, coming in the middle of what is reportedly the worst drought in 1,200 years. However, some of these problems are caused by poor water management.

California’s water laws dedicate around 40% of total water to farming and agriculture—about 80% of what isn’t strictly devoted to maintaining wildlife and the environment. Farming requires a lot of water, and California water law does not improve the situation. There is a huge incentive for farmers to waste water, meaning the so-called breadbasket of America can’t sustainably keep producing the same crops it currently does. California, if it were a country, would have the eighth largest economy in the world, so shutting down the pipes is not exactly an option.

Technology to the Rescue

So, what is being done to keep lawns green in The Golden State? Water appliance standards have been enacted, which are projected to save more than 100 billion gallons per year. But even massive usage restrictions won’t be enough to keep California going. William Shatner has proposed a $30 billion Kickstarter campaign for a pipeline that could transport water, above ground, from Seattle into Lake Mead. Orange County began recharging its drinking water aquifer with purified wastewater in 2008, but the catchphrase toilet-to-tap makes this a less-than-popular option in the public eye.

One solution that appears more glamorous is the desalination of seawater. In Carlsbad, California, construction is underway on a $1 billion desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Due to open in early 2016, this plant could provide up to 50 million gallons of fresh water each day, supplying around 112,000 households. Desalination is, however, massively expensive and can discharge large amounts of concentrated brine directly into the ocean. Permanent desalination plants (such as the one in Carlsbad) can only treat around 35%–50% of the water they bring in, according to Stanley Weiner, CEO of STW resources.

Salttech, a Norwegian company, recently demonstrated its DyVaR Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) water processing technology in Midland, Texas. This technology promises to recover up to 97% of the water processed, and discharge only solid salt and minerals, thus eliminating the problem of brine disposal to the ocean. Salttech has plans to begin an ocean desalination project on the coast of California. This technology also claims to be economical, reducing the cost of desalination from $1,850–$2,000 per acre-foot to $1,100–$1,350 per acre-foot, also according to Stanley Weiner. With the cost of desalinated water currently hovering around twice that of imported water, these technologies must make some major cost reductions before they can be widely adopted. Until then, California may have to start construction on Mr. Shatner’s pipeline.

 

Oregon Boldly Enters the Road Tax Debate

— May 21, 2015

 The decaying road infrastructure in the United States is obvious to everyone, yet state and federal legislators have done nothing for decades. Despite the constant threat of injury due to failing roads and bridges, hiking the federal gas tax is viewed as a death sentence for politicians, who have not raised the levy since 1993. Back then the gas tax represented 17.1 % of the total retail price of gas; in 2014, it constituted only 5.3%.

Gas tax revenue has not kept up with inflation, which has resulted in tax revenue for the federal Highway Trust Fund to be taken from other revenue sources to remain solvent. The Fund, which is $52 billion in the red over the past decade, will run out of money at the end of May unless Congress acts to reauthorize funding.

The lack of federal funds is squeezing states to do more on their own to repair their infrastructure, and Oregon is one of at least 10 states that are attempting to raise revenue. In July, Oregon will test moving from a fixed per-gallon tax to a per-mile-driven fee. The challenge with testing the program with 5,000 volunteers is that the self-selecting audience is likely to save money since drivers with low fuel economy vehicles are unlikely to join, knowing that they would pay more by participating. However, if those who do participate react positively, then Oregon is more likely to move to implement the plan for all drivers.

Fee Hikes

The move to a per-mile fee is in response to decreasing use of fuel (and therefore tax revenue) per mile driven due to increasing fuel economy and the arrival of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). Some states have considered adding an annual registration fee for PEVs, which don’t pay road taxes on the electricity that powers the vehicles.
While this would raise revenue, it could reduce sales of PEVs if the overall fuel savings were then reduced. A more equitable solution would be to combine a per-mile-driven tax with annual registration fees that consider another negative impact of driving—greenhouse gas emissions. Having more costly registration fees for vehicles with higher emissions (i.e., low fuel economy) could keep the overall cost of driving a PEV, hybrid, or other fuel efficient vehicle sufficiently cheaper to encourage their purchase.

Other states considering changes to gas and road taxes to increase revenue include Illinois and Nebraska. The Nebraska legislature on May 14 overrode the governor’s veto of a law that would raise the gas tax.

Bridges Out Ahead

“Once again, the Legislature has chosen to prioritize tax hikes over tax relief measures that Nebraskan need and deserve,” Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts said, as quoted by the Associated Press.

On the federal level, Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who is also from Oregon, has proposed redirecting funds from the estate tax to the Highway Trust Fund rather than repealing it. This initiative, like most other bills related to infrastructure funding, has little chance of passing despite the considerable benefits, including creating 13,000 jobs per $1 billion spent.

Sadly, it will likely take a series of bridge collapses such as what happened recently in Jacksonville, Florida or other such calamities for the public to pressure state and federal legislators to take serious action on infrastructure.

 

Bristol, U.K. Plans To Be Open, Programmable City

— May 20, 2015

The City of Bristol’s selection as the European Green Capital 2015 is an example of the increasingly visible role that U.K. cities are taking in the evolution of smart city ideas and solutions.  The title may be largely symbolic, but it is one that many European cities covet as a validation of their innovation in sustainable living and development.  As with all such awards, there is plenty of skepticism as to how far the realities match the rhetoric, but the scope and ambition of the city’s program are impressive. Bristol has been keen to build on the award and use it to add significant momentum to an already impressive list of projects cutting across the energy, transportation, building, and technology sectors.

A good example of Bristol’s ambition is the recently launched Bristol is Open, a joint venture between the city council and the University of Bristol to develop an open, high-speed network that will foster innovation across multiple city applications. The project has funding support from the U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Innovate UK, and is also building on the supercomputing capabilities of the University of Bristol.

Experimentation as a Service

A core element of the project is a City Operating System (CityOS), developed by the University’s High Performance Networks research group. The CItyOS will manage the machine-to-machine communications across the city using a software defined network (SDN)  approach to improve manageability, integration, and accessibility.  The network is being developed according to OpenDaylight standards as part of the project’s commitment to openness, which extends to procurement and data management, as well as hardware and software.  All the data generated will be anonymized and made public through the city’s open data portal. The project team will also proactively share its findings with other cities, technology companies, universities, and citizens. The network will be used by technology companies, research organizations and small and medium-sized enterprises to develop and experiment with new solutions in urban mobility, energy efficiency, environmental monitoring, and health. The team has defined its approach as City Experimentation as a Service.

The project will make use of three networks: a 30-GB  fiber optic network, a series of Wi-Fi wireless networks along the Brunel Mile area of the city, and a radio frequency mesh network based on city lampposts.  The aim is to eventually expand the networks beyond the city center into the wider city region, creating an open, programmable region covering one million people. Among the partners already signed up for the project is Silver Spring Networks, which is providing the  mesh network technology to connect the city’s streetlights and to provide a platform for other applications, such as traffic monitoring, air quality control, and safety cameras.

Creating the Digital City

The Bristol project is an example of how  the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city concepts are coming out of the labs and small-scale pilots and onto the streets of major cities.  Other examples include an extended smart street lighting network in Copenhagen and Barcelona’s plan to develop a multi-application Urban Platform.

If successful, the Bristol model could be a showcase for how network infrastructure and a CityOS can provide a shared capability for access and innovation.

 

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