Navigant Research Blog

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.


Cautiously, Private Utilities Dip Toes into Microgrid Pool

— 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 all 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.


Wireless Power Could Transform Smart Building Nanogrids

— October 6, 2014

From mobile phones to Wi-Fi, wireless communications have fundamentally changed human behavior.  As the much hyped era of the Internet of Things looms, the dense, rich communication networks needed seem to only be possible using wireless networks.  Moreover, big data requires ever more data to be collected and shared.  In buildings, this means more sensors and more communications to enable better efficiency.  Though wireless communications are poised to facilitate this transformation, the shift remains tangled in the wired status quo.

In addition to communications, building networks need power to create what Navigant Research has defined as nanogrids, which are, in essence, single-building microgrids capable of aggregating and optimizing distributed energy resources (DER) while increasing resilience thanks to their ability to island during utility power grid outages.  Running power wires to sensors is costly in new construction and prohibitive in most existing buildings.  As a result, it’s not done unless absolutely necessary.  Wireless makes the communication side of the equation easily scalable.  The incremental cost for connecting more sensors is small.  But, if a sensor needs wired power, why would anyone invest in wireless communications?  Power remains the key to unlocking greater data density in smart buildings, and thereby, expanding near-term opportunities for nanogrid applications.

Get Low

One approach to reducing the cost of sensors is lowering the cost of power wiring rather than eliminating the wire all together.  This is accomplished by using low-voltage direct current (DC) power for sensors, controllers, actuators, and even LED lighting.  Low-power DC wiring doesn’t need to be installed by an electrician, reducing the installation cost.  Also, many electronic devices are natively DC-powered.  So alternating current (AC) power must first be converted, resulting in an efficiency loss.  Moreover, onsite generation of power through solar PV panels or wind turbines is typically DC (as are battery storage devices).  So, DC distribution within buildings helps match energy supply with loads (since according to some estimates, 80% of building loads such as LED lighting, laptops, and cellphone chargers are all natively DC).  Low-power DC in buildings can serve as building blocks to nanogrids that tailor energy services to the precise needs of end users.

The push for DC power is being led by the Emerge Alliance, an industry association developing DC power distribution standards for commercial buildings.  A competing solution can be found in Power over Ethernet.  Both solutions can be cheaper to install than a traditional system.  But, though low power is less intrusive than the status quo, wires remain a limiting factor.

Power from High Frequencies

Eliminating all wires is the most elegant solution to enable the transition to more data-rich buildings.  Currently, this is being done either by installing batteries or by harvesting ambient energy to power devices.  Batteries require replacement and, when examined on a cost per kilowatt-hour basis, are very expensive.  They just don’t provide enough benefit to eliminate power wires.  Energy harvesting, on the other hand, eliminates the maintenance requirement but is restricted by the ambient light available.

However, a shift from energy harvesting to wireless power transmission is on the horizon.  Ossia, a tech startup, has demoed its Cota wireless power technology and expects to have commercially available products by the end of 2015.  Cota works by broadcasting radio waves over the 2.4 to 2.485 GHz ISM band (the same as Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and others) and is capable of transmitting about 1W of power up to 10 meters – enough for a sensor, but not much else.  Even a decade from now, it’s unlikely that wireless power transfer or energy harvesting will be able to provide enough power for anything more than a sensor.  But leveraging big data in buildings requires more sensors, many more than are currently deployed.  Wireless power could be the building block that brings the Internet of Things to smart buildings and hasten the spread of nanogrids.

For a more detailed look at the nanogrid market, please join our free webinar, The Expanding Business of Nanogrids, on Tuesday, October 14 at 2 p.m. ET.  Click here to register.


Distributed Generation Leads Microgrid Investment Opportunities

— September 18, 2014

Without some form of distributed generation (DG), the vast majority of microgrids would not exist.  So, it should come as no surprise that such assets represent the single most lucrative microgrid enabling technologies (MET) segment today.

A prime mover technology for microgrids is diesel generators, which are widely deployed as backup emergency power generators thanks to their ability for black-start.  However, they are also often legacy assets upon which microgrids are layered and, more often than not, microgrids are specifically designed to reduce diesel fuel consumption.

In Navigant Research’s report, Microgrid Enabling Technologies, the amount of DG being deployed within microgrids is forecast in terms of capacity and of annual vendor revenue.  If one looks at new capacity additions, diesel generators have captured the largest market share, followed closely behind by natural gas generators (which also serve as the basis for combined heat and power applications).

DG Capacity Market Share in Microgrids: 2014


(Source: Navigant Research)

An important caveat on these estimates: only systems that incorporate some level of renewables are included in the tally for remote microgrids.   If one were to include all diesel generators deployed cumulatively, Navigant Research’s data suggests that they would represent more than 65% of total microgrid DG capacity.

Decline of Diesel

Another key assumption moving forward with microgrids is that new diesel capacity will decline over time, given the high cost of fuel, tightening air quality regulations, and the emergence of new power electronics technologies, lessening the need for a fossil prime mover.

While fossil DG capacity is still expected to exceed that of renewable capacity deployed within microgrids in 2014, the higher capital cost attached to solar PV, wind, hydroelectric, and biomass translates into higher vendor revenue per megawatt.  Fossil fuel DG (diesel and natural gas generators plus fuel cells) is expected to represent 58% of total DG capacity in 2014, according to our forecasts; renewables will most likely capture the other 42% of the DG market.   On a revenue basis, however, renewables are expected to capture 23% of total MET vendor revenue in 2014, compared to only 9% for fossil fuel DG.

Notably, the largest category of revenue in 2014 is technologies not actually included in the forecast, since they cannot be quantified on the basis of generation capacity (i.e., smart meters, smart switches, and other distribution or building infrastructure).  The majority of microgrids being deployed today incorporate significant amounts of legacy DG.  (Most of the community microgrids under development in New York and Connecticut add no or very little DG capacity.)  As a result, large investments into integration hardware – distribution infrastructure that cannot be quantified on the basis of generation capacity – represent a large piece of the overall investment pie for these retrofit microgrid projects. But this category is likely to decline as an overall percentage of total vendor revenue by 2023 as renewables, energy storage, and software increase in market share over time.


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