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What Falls Under the Broad Microgrid Umbrella?

Peter Asmus
Jan 09, 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 13 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 3 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)