Navigant Research Blog

What Will the Microgrid of the Future Look Like?

— March 6, 2018

Microgrids have been around for a long time. In the past, the majority were powered up by diesel fuel and often were not connected to a traditional utility power grid. But what will the microgrid of the future look like?

As reported in the last update to the Microgrid Deployment Tracker published in 4Q 2017, the remote microgrid market share for total identified cumulative capacity declined from 45% to 39% in the 2Q 2017 update. This trend is more of a reflection of the grid-tied market picking up momentum than a lack of interest in remote off-grid applications. For comparison purposes, the next largest microgrid market segment in the update is the commercial and industrial segment, which has witnessed a recent surge and which Navigant Research estimates will be the fastest-growing market segment over the next decade.

Primary DER in Microgrids Are Going to Change

Rather than focusing on market segments, what about the types of distributed energy resources (DER) being deployed within microgrids? It should come as no surprise that diesel and natural gas generation still lead the resource mix. Looking into the future, a far different picture emerges.

In the Microgrid Enabling Technologies report published this January, combined heat and power was the leading DER choice in terms of capacity for microgrids on a global basis in 2017, with 655 MW deployed, followed by solar PV (392 MW) and then diesel (385 MW). By 2026, however, the DER landscape shifts, with solar PV jumping to a commanding lead with 3,786 MW annually, followed by energy storage with 3,292 MW. Energy storage boasts the most aggressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) with 37.4%; solar PV follows at a CAGR of 28.7%.

Investment Spending Predicted to Rise

Implementation spending tracks this capacity growth. All eight DER were profiled in the recent report (which also includes biomass, diesel, hydro, and wind power). This market forecast represented just over $4 billion in investment in 2017. That annual spending increases to nearly $23.6 billion by 2026, a 21.7% CAGR. Solar PV ranks as the top DER investment target for microgrids, with annual spending reaching virtually half of all DER investment by 2026 at $6.7 billion. Energy storage spending follows at $4.5 billion annually in 2026.

Collaboration Expected as Power Sources Diversify

In short, solar PV and energy storage will be the most popular MET options for future microgrids. Yet, the more interesting question revolves around the potential role of fossil generators. One clue comes from companies such as Fairbanks Morse, which now offers a power reliability as a service platform. Rather than view solar and storage as a threat, it is investigating how to collaborate with the industry’s overall shift to the Energy Cloud.

Fairbanks Morse is not the only company exploring how the energy as a service model applies to microgrids. Perhaps the biggest single headline for microgrids in 2018 is the partnership between Schneider Electric, Dynamic Energy Networks, and the Carlyle Group, looking to deploy $500 million in microgrids under a microgrids as a service business model.

Microgrid Evolution Is Just Getting Started

Of course, the energy service approach to microgrids is still in incubation. The key to making this approach work are controllers, the magic sauce, if you will. As DER portfolios become commoditized, the innovation shifts to automation, controls, and software. Who are the leaders in this space? Look for my forthcoming report ranking control providers later this month.

Getting back to my opening question, the microgrid of the future will be more sustainable, ultra-resilient, plug-and-play, financed under an energy as a service business model with private capital, and will include both solar and energy storage.


Five Bold Predictions on the Frontier of Energy for 2018

— January 11, 2018

It is that time of the year again, when pundits pontificate about what the future holds, and citizens and corporations alike set goals for the coming year. I’d like to make five predictions for 2018 that underscore why a forecast increase in distributed energy resources (DER) over centralized generation will transform the global economy in sometimes surprising ways.

1. DER Innovation Will Abound

The spotlight continues to shine brightly on solar and energy storage technologies. Yet other forms of DER, especially generators driven by fossil fuels, will push the envelope on new business models in surprising ways. For example, Fairbanks Morse recently announced a new offering it is calling power reliability as a service, allowing remote villages in Latin America to access reliable electricity in locations not accessible by road or even airplane. These generators are forging new partnerships/acquisitions while also integrating upgrades revolving around novel hardware designs: Innovus Power (featuring variable speed generators) and the 360 Power Group (extensively patented modular generators that dramatically reduce fuel consumption and improve reliability), are just two examples.

2. One Microgrid Vendor to Lead Them

A US company will emerge as the leading microgrids controls vendor based on validated performance, offering a controls solution priced below $2,000 for a kilowatt-scale microgrid. The company has wowed US government officials with the performance of its controls solution. The question is: can it effectively market its solution as the go-to platform in a market not quite mature enough for a true plug-and-play solution?

3. Policies to Net Positive Results for DER

Trump administration tax reform and new policy directives at the US Environmental Protection Agency will accelerate smart energy investments by a factor of three. While some of these regulatory tweaks will reduce public government support for renewables such as solar PV, the net results will be positive for DER. A combination of public policy reforms at the state level in the US and actions by the private sector will demonstrate that the transition to key elements included under the Energy Cloud future is unstoppable.

4. Asia Pacific Takes Over Innovation

The center of innovation on the DER front will shift away from North America and toward Asia Pacific, focusing on four countries: Australia, China, India, and Japan. Each of these countries offers a landscape fostering DER opportunities. One could argue that Australia is where the most diverse opportunity exists in terms of DER integration with microgrids and virtual power plants. Australia is also home to Power Ledger experiments with transactive energy.

5. Energy-Water Connection Creates Opportunities

New solution offerings focused on the energy-water nexus will come to the fore in 2018. In California, Advanced Microgrid Solutions is one company to recognize this linkage with innovative grid-connected battery systems supporting public water agencies: Inland Empire Utility Agency, Irvine Ranch Water District, and the Long Beach Water Department. Of course, water is a necessity for life. An even more urgent need for energy-water nexus solutions is in developing world locations such as India, where 1 billion people need access to safe and clean drinking water (and as many as 300 million lack access to electricity). Linking solutions for both water and power through DER-based solutions creates synergy and opportunities, both for do-gooders and for entrepreneurs seeking profit.

A Distributed and Resilient Future

These five trends are not the only things I see in my crystal ball. Yet I believe they will help define 2018 as the world makes the transition from costly centralized power infrastructure to a nimble, flexible, and more resilient paradigm. We are in a historic transformation toward a clean, distributed, intelligent, and mobile grid. Do you agree?


What Falls Under the Broad Microgrid Umbrella?

— January 9, 2018

There is arguably one question that needs to be answered by the customer thinking about microgrids: What do they really want in terms of a power supply solution? If the customer can quantify what they are seeking in terms of dollars saved, efficiency gains, or perhaps a reduction in downtime, then the solutions provider can design a system to meet those goals (whether that system meets the definition of a microgrid or not).

The question of whether you need a microgrid will be determined by different ownership models, geographies, and regulatory systems. Take the case of Duke Energy, a large vertically integrated utility serving customers in multiple US states. It views microgrids very differently than a third-party vendor focused on off-grid applications in the developing world.

Grid or No Grid?

Duke Energy jumped into the microgrid market seeking to build a system with off-the-shelf parts. It succeeded, but learned quite a bit about integration challenges, which led to its efforts promoting interoperability standards. It has since followed a dual path on microgrids, leveraging both its unregulated businesses in partnership with Schneider Electric for a community microgrid under a microgrids as a service business model, but also rate-basing a new microgrid at a National Guard facility in Indiana. For Duke Energy, microgrids are about enhancing traditional grid infrastructure. They can serve as a vehicle to integrate diverse distributed energy resources into its own power grid under a “do no harm” paradigm.

For Optimal Power Solutions, an Australian-based firm active in overseas developing economy markets such as India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, the perspective on microgrids is vastly different. “The term microgrid may be the broadest church of all,” commented Stephen J. Phillips, company founder and a 20-year veteran of deploying off-grid solutions for village and remote commercial customers. He observed that the majority of the 1,800 systems Optimal Power Solutions has deployed were designed to displace diesel burning in remote parts of the world. Today, however, much of its work revolves around “essentially installing an off-grid system that is connected to a standard utility grid.” Case in point are several grid-connected solar PV plus energy storage projects in Japan, including the Nagoya landfill project, designed to make such hybrid systems dispatchable and time-shift stored solar energy after the sun sets.

Latest Regional Trends

The US is the top country in the world in terms of total identified capacity according to Navigant Research’s newly published 13th edition of the Microgrid Deployment Tracker. The US has 6,213.1 MW of capacity across 853 projects. China comes in second place, a country where verifying project data is the most difficult of all countries. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is that Saudi Arabia jumps in at 3rd place with the addition of the Saudi Aramco microgrid cluster, a 2.2 GW project at the Saudi Aramco gas-oil separation plant in Shaybah, Saudi Arabia from Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. This microgrid (technically eight interconnected microgrids operated by a single controller) is likely the largest group of nested microgrids in the world and the largest single entry in the Tracker.

India and Australia round out the top five countries in terms of capacity (see Top 10 figure). Is the Saudi Aramco project really a microgrid? From a controls perspective, the answer is yes. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether there should be a size limit on microgrids.

Top 10 Countries by Total Microgrid Power Capacity, World Markets: 4Q 2017

(Source: Navigant Research)


Why Does Diesel Win in Places like Puerto Rico? It’s 9,000 Times Better Than Solar PV by This Metric

— December 12, 2017

In the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Irma, there is much talk about how renewables are the ideal backfill to replace and modernize electric grids. Indeed, renewables like solar PV and wind, along with energy storage, grab headlines due to their falling costs, low lifetime carbon emissions, and general excitement about their deployment and future potential. Why, then, was the largest immediate post-storm addition a pair of 25 MW diesel-fired turbines installed by APR Energy?

Compactness Is Key

In addition to dispatchability and fast install (the plant was operational in 15 days), a key factor is energy density, defined here as daily energy output per acre of plant area. By Navigant Research numbers, combustion turbines like the ones installed by APR can produce as much as 6,200 MWh in a day using 1 acre of land. Compare that to solar PV, which is smaller by a factor of 9,200; based on National Renewable Energy Lab data, solar PV can be expected to produce about 0.67 MWh in an acre. The figure below indicates energy density by corresponding bubble size. The numbers vary by project, but the contrast is stark. Reciprocating generator sets (gensets) are compact, more distributed than the turbines, and a key part of the recovery (with the installation of 375 generators noted by this article). There are also headlines citing fast installation of renewables in microgrids, a clear trend of the future. Still, many of the high output, dense systems tend to be based around fossil fuels.

Energy density has two components. Power density (along the vertical axis) indicates the footprint needed for energy production in any instant of time. Combine that with the second component—capacity factor, along the horizonal axis—and fossil-fueled generation can look exceptionally appealing thanks to its availability nearly 24/7. A crucial advantage is the system’s dispatchability, the ability to provide power on demand.

Energy and Power Density by Technology: Daily Delivered Energy (MWh) in 1-Acre Footprint,
North America: 2017

*Assumes 6-hour (150 MWh) battery discharges 80% of capacity, once daily.

**Equivalent hours/day at max output, assuming consistent demand for power.

Sources: Bloom Energy, Caterpillar, General Electric, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NGK

Island nations are often constrained on space and need to fit generation among existing infrastructure—especially after a disaster. Many are among the most cramped on Earth, with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and many Caribbean nations falling in the top one-sixth of all countries by population density. Though rooftops are available for solar PV, they can be small and may need retrofits. Offshore wind is quickly becoming more appealing, too (though if the grid goes down, it can’t provide onsite, distributed power).

Hybrid Systems Hold Promise

While diesel has the advantage of compactness and dispatchability, it is also expensive, challenging to transport long distances, and emits lots of greenhouse gases and other criteria pollutants like NOX and particulate matter. Natural gas holds many of the same advantages while avoiding many of the cons of diesel; where it is available, it often outperforms diesel. Dual-fuel turbines and gensets can be even more attractive—the Puerto Rico turbines produce power at 18.15 cents/kWh on diesel and less on natural gas when it’s available.

Still, natural gas faces similar hurdles to those noted for diesel (albeit lower ones). In many cases, the optimal system is hybridized—relying on a mix of fossil fuel and renewables. Despite all the buzz around solar, storage, and other renewables, reliance on only those technologies is often cost prohibitive. Hybrid microgrids based around diesel or heavy fuel oil generation can often see fuel savings of 10%-30% or more with the addition of new technologies like solar PV, wind, and storage.


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