Navigant Research Blog

Plug-and-Play Microgrids Are Building Momentum

— February 17, 2017

GeneratorThe concept of plug-and-play microgrids is picking up momentum. But like the term microgrid itself, plug-and-play means many different things.

To a software company such as Spirae, the plug-and-play concept is all about enabling software (the topic of a recent Navigant Research white paper and webinar). According to Spirae, configurable microgrids and the need for standardized projects of similar scale are necessary for the microgrid market to scale up. The diversity of services a microgrid could provide hinges on flexible software configurations.

In a similar vein, Blue Pillar is marketing itself as an Internet of Things (IoT) solutions provider. It was ranked as the top company globally in terms of identified microgrid deployments in Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker last year. The company claims it can bring a microgrid online in a matter of months thanks to its rich library of data pertaining to different types of distributed energy resources (DER).

Many Different Labels

Interestingly enough, to software companies such as Spirae and Blue Pillar, the term microgrid is too limiting for what they do. For Blue Pillar in particular, its controls platform spans smart buildings to virtual power plants (VPPs) and could also be considered simply a DER management system (DERMS) solution. As Spirae has argued, these different labels—microgrid, IoT, VPP, DERMS—really don’t matter from a software perspective. The key to unlocking value that may be hidden within DER is a shift away from complex customized engineering to a more standardized and modular approach. Think like Uber, but deliver like Comcast.

To ABB, a plug-and-play microgrid is instead a hardware offering in the form of a containerized solution. These microgrids, primarily designed for rugged, off-grid applications, can be put together like Lego blocks and reach a scale of up to 5 MW. Beyond that size, ABB admits the microgrid becomes overly complex, requiring customized engineering.

ABB is fairly unique among the long list of multinationals seeking opportunity in the microgrid space with both a distributed controls approach and a focus on off-grid projects, where the company believes the value proposition is clearest. For example, in Australia or Alaska, the business case for renewables does not depend upon renewable portfolio standards, net metering, or carbon reduction targets.

Increasing Modularity

Taking the concept of modularity in microgrids even further from a hardware perspective is startup ARDA Power, which extolls the virtues of direct current (DC) microgrids. The beauty of DC is that not only does it allow a project design to reduce power conversion devices, which simplifies design and islanding, but it is also much easier just to plug in other DC devices such as solar PV and batteries, two technologies poised to increase as a portion of the microgrid resource mix in the future.

The first company to offer a plug-and-play microgrid was Tecogen with its combined heat and power units. It recently upgraded, with the ability to plug in solar PV or batteries on a DC bus, creating a hybrid alternating current (AC)-DC microgrid. Yet another company touting a plug-and-play microgrid solution is SparkMeter, which offers low-cost but incredibly robust metering solutions for energy access solutions in the developing world. Ironically enough, one can make the argument that metering is even more important in these kilowatt-scale systems, where payment for energy services is vital for business cases.

From hardware to software, AC to DC, combined heating and power to smart meters, the plug-and-play concept appears to be all the rage in the microgrid space.

 

Distributed Energy Storage Deployments Driven by Financing Innovation, Part 2

— February 13, 2017

As highlighted in the previous post in this two-part series, the development of standardized power purchase agreement contracts by the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Solar Access to Public Capital Working Group has contributed to the continued growth of at-scale solar PV financing. Building on those solar PV standardization successes, Navigant Research is witnessing the development of new energy storage business models and financing instruments driven in part by contractual standardization. Navigant Research recently explored these new energy storage financing instruments in a recent research brief, Financing Advanced Batteries in Stationary Energy Storage.

A second type of standardized contract has emerged to help finance behind-the-meter distributed battery energy storage systems (BESSs). This new standardized contract focuses on aggregating BESS assets across multiple sites as a virtual power plant (VPP) to reduce energy demand.

Demand Response Energy Services Agreements

A demand response energy services agreement (DRESA) is typically executed with a local utility responsible for managing load on the distribution system by means of VPP technology. In this case, the utility compensates a third-party VPP owner for system availability (capacity) and actual DR energy storage services provided (performance). With a DRESA, the local utility can utilize the VPP for a defined duration for grid DR. But in most cases, the energy storage system owner or operator also promises to provide demand charge costs savings to hosts by means of a demand charge savings agreement (DCSA).

Advantages and Challenges for DRESAs

Key advantages of financing distributed BESS VPPs using a DRESA include:

  • The ability to deploy reliable DR assets in local power markets without upfront capital expenditures by either the local utility or the commercial and industrial (C&I) host facility
  • The ability for utilities to deploy reliable DR assets to optimize the local distribution system without the need to own and operate new storage assets

Key challenges facing the financing of BESS VPPs using a DRESA include:

  • The ability of BESS VPP software platforms to evaluate historical building load profiles and site-specific tariff requirements across large portfolios of C&I host sites to predict VPP deployment scenarios and project revenue.
  • The hardware/software complexity involved with integrating building load, onsite distributed generation, and building control across large portfolios of C&I host sites into VPP deployment strategies.

Standardized Approach to Quantifying Complexity, Risks, and Revenue

One can only imagine the complexity required to be addressed in these types of standardized agreements and technology deployment scenarios. For example, for a DRESA VPP application, the highest value will often be for the energy storage software system to leverage automated DR building efficiency technology to aid in reducing building load. Quite simply, installing and deploying this technology with some degree of battery energy storage capability will likely have a lower overall installed cost than deploying only larger batteries and inverters to do all the work.

Navigant Research can point to two examples where these issues have been sufficiently addressed, resulting in BESS VPP financing commitments:

As referenced in the previous post in this blog series, Navigant Research anticipates that standardized contracts such as DCSA and DRESAs will lead to the kind of financing innovation necessary to drive the deployment of distributed energy storage technology.

 

Winter Season Builds Business Case for Storage, Virtual Power Plants in California

— January 9, 2017

AnalyticsA little over a year ago, the underground Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility began leaking. While the primary concern was how methane emissions might jeopardize public safety, this event also created a crisis in energy supply in Southern California. As it turns out, it became the largest methane leak in US history. By some estimates, the leak had a climate change impact equivalent to burning 1 billion gallons of gasoline. The value of the leaked natural gas has been estimated at more than $21 billion.

However, the leak from the gas field, which supplied fuel for a fleet of fossil fuel plants serving as one of the backbones of the regional power supply, also created an ideal market opportunity. The only way to fill in the gaps opened by the leak was through distributed energy resources (DER) that could be mobilized in short order. Among the innovative solutions are virtual power plants (VPPs) enabled by energy storage.

Distributed Solutions

The state moved swiftly. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) made a bold decision, calling for a wide range of DER in late May. Fortunately, Southern California Edison (SCE) and industry providers were positioned to move fast, since contracts were already in place for over 260 MW of energy storage, 5 times the amount SCE had been required to purchase.

Last month, Stem was among the first vendors to deliver aggregated behind-the-meter, commercial-scale storage services. It was the first to pass eligibility tests for SCE’s local capacity requirements. The company has now dispatched the first of many distributed energy storage projects, all of which contribute to its forthcoming 85 MW fleet for SCE, arguably the largest mixed-asset VPP in the world.

The speed and scale for delivering products such as demand response (DR), energy storage, and VPPs are important, as the energy demands of the winter months place an extra burden on utilities for reliable energy supply across the country. Already, independent grid operators such as PJM are revising DR products in lieu of the shortage created by the so-called polar vortex 2 years ago. PJM’s new capacity performance product has created controversy, but its intent is to make DR a year-round resource. Integrating energy storage into such resources can help make that goal feasible. (Last December, the CPUC also strengthened its commitments to DER as a key solution set for year-round reliability.)

Ranking Vendors

Navigant Research released a Leaderboard report late last year ranking VPP software vendors. As an analyst, there is no better way to win friends (and create enemies) than to create a ranking of vendors. Another Navigant analyst wondered why Stem has not on the list. Needless to say, one could make an argument it belonged in the ranking; other vendors also protested their exclusion.

The truth of the matter is that the overlap is increasing between energy storage, DR, and VPP Leaderboards, so this latest ranking was limited to four energy storage firms in order to limit eligibility (with quotas also established for large technology vendors and pure-play software companies). Preference was given to those firms whose software managed onsite solar PV with batteries and loads at the distribution level and then aggregated these into VPPs. Stem is a VPP innovator, but its business model had focused more on demand charge abatement for commercial buildings without onsite distributed generation. Thanks to its abovementioned engagement with SCE, Stem is now certainly on my radar when it comes to VPPs and energy storage, joining a growing list of innovators.

 

Why VPP Software Vendors Are Vital to the Success of the Emerging Energy Cloud

— November 30, 2016

Ethernet CablesThe concept of a virtual power plant (VPP) means different things to different people. It’s really just a creative way to imagine the variety of grid services that can be harvested from the plethora of distributed energy resources (DER) that are rapidly populating power grids worldwide.

A VPP is the epitome of the changes transforming relationships between utilities, customers, and a host of other market participants that are building real solutions to the pressing energy and environmental challenges facing the world today. Navigant has coined the term the Energy Cloud to describe the evolution of our collective energy future. VPPs are just one aspect of this shift toward smarter, cleaner, and smaller power sources being aggregated into real-time solutions that benefit individual asset owners while contributing to the sustainability of existing infrastructure.

The Value of Software

Now that hardware assets such as solar PV panels, batteries, and other DER are becoming commoditized due to increased market penetrations and creative business models, the key to unlocking greater value from both new and existing DER is software—the fundamental technology driver underlying the VPP market.

Software is a broad category. It includes systems that connect DER in order to optimize synergies between like and unlike resources, in addition to the interface mechanics of interacting with utilities and wholesale markets for ancillary services. IT and related software is where the money is being made in the VPP market; according to Navigant Research’s Virtual Power Plant Enabling Technologies report, software spending is expected to represent nearly 90% of total VPP implementation spending by 2025. The same report also provides an analysis of the energy storage systems being wrapped into VPPs.

A sudden surge in energy storage deployments being aggregated into VPPs is tilting the market in dramatically new directions. How utilities and wholesale transmission grid operators treat energy storage as an asset may be the most important technology-related development affecting near-term commercial VPP deployments.

Ranking Vendors

Navigant also recently published a Leaderboard Report ranking VPP software vendors. There is always an apples-to-apples comparison challenge with the Leaderboard format, but by stepping back and focusing on the overall trends in the market, insights bubble up to the surface.

Ranking software vendors active in the mixed asset VPP market is even more problematic than microgrid controls vendors given the lack of available transparent data on performance of software products. The lack of a universal definition for a VPP only adds another layer of issues in developing a ranking. These caveats aside, the rankings do reveal some market insights.

Some vendors claim vertically integrated utilities are the best near-term market for VPPs, since all ancillary services required to keep the grid physically in balance are purchased by one single entity. Others argue that deregulated markets open doors to new ways of monetizing value and harness the value of diversity and competition. I believe both opportunities will help build the VPPs of the future. It will be mix of pure-play software vendors, energy storage innovators, and large global technology companies that show the way.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Digital Utility Strategies, Electric Vehicles, Energy Technologies, Finance & Investing, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Transportation Efficiencies

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Virtual Power Plants","path":"\/tag\/virtual-power-plants","date":"2\/27\/2017"}