Navigant Research Blog

Is Finland Europe’s Best Hope for Microgrids?

— December 7, 2017

While Europe is considered a global leader in moving toward a low carbon energy future, the tightly regulated EU markets have several features that severely limit the development of microgrids:

  • The focus has been on large-scale renewable energy development such as offshore wind, which requires massive investment in transmission infrastructure.
  • Deployment of distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar PV has primarily been based on feed-in tariffs, a business model precluding the key defining feature of a microgrid—the ability to seal off resources from the larger grid via islanding.
  • EU markets are tightly interwoven and methods to address the variability of renewables such as wind and solar lean toward cross-border trading, not localized microgrids.

As the forthcoming update to Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker demonstrates, Europe represents approximately 9% of the global microgrid market. The vast majority of microgrids deployed in Europe are actually on islands in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, or projects such as Bornholm or the Faroe Islands of Denmark.

I recently attended the International Symposium on Microgrids in Newcastle, Australia at the CSIRO Energy Centre. One could argue that Australia is the current global hotspot for commercialization of the Energy Cloud ecosystem. I have certainly made that argument in the past.

Fortune in Finland?

Perhaps the most surprising revelation at the conference was this: a unique confluence of factors make Finland the best opportunity for microgrids in Europe. Finland is not only the global leader on smart meter deployments, with 99% of its 3.5 million customers having access to this technology, but it also has a deregulated wholesale and retail market that features 83 distribution system operators (DSOs), with the largest distribution networks composed of 200,000 customers.

Unlike its neighbors Sweden and Norway, Finland lacks massive hydroelectric resources. What hydro it has tends to be run-of-the-river systems, and some of the smaller scale systems are microgrid-friendly. Most importantly, Finland is a country that does not fully share the stellar reliability associated with the EU grid. During blackouts in 2011 and 2012, as many as 570,000 customers lost power for an extended period of time. This outage raised the issue of the vulnerability of the Finland grid to winter storms due to overhead lines running through the country’s deeply forested regions that can sag from snow.

Pro-Consumer Policy Changes

In a quick response to these power outages, new regulations have been put in place that limit power outages to 6 hours annually for urban residents and 36 hours for rural customers by 2028. In a policy that would likely scare utilities in the US, DSOs are required to compensate customers for power outages. If a power outage lasts longer than 12 hours, the DSO must pay the customer 10% of its annual distribution fee, and compensation goes up gradually to a maximum of 200% with interruptions longer than 288 hours.

The first option of most DSOs to respond to these new reliability regulations is to place distribution lines underground. However, that can be expensive, especially given the low density of some DSO customer bases. According to research performed by Lappeeranta University of Technology (LUT), the lowest cost option for 10%‒40% of the medium voltage branch lines would be low voltage direct current microgrids. One such LVDC microgrid project, developed by LUT in collaboration with DSO Suur-Savon Sähkö, was developed in 2012, incorporating solar PV and batteries. Though only one other microgrid currently is operating, Finland represents an ideal market for utility distribution microgrids.


Californian and National Policies Could Shape Future Value Stacking for Distributed Natural Gas

— December 5, 2017

Distributed natural gas generation (DNGG) has significant potential for disruption in the electric sector thanks to improving generator technologies, cheap fuel, and the global trend toward decentralized systems in need of dispatchable power. Navigant Research has identified DNGG as a significant trend of the future, and various legislative and regulatory actions continue to affect this often overlooked but critical solution ecosystem. On the surface, some of these regulatory decisions appear as setbacks, and issues at the federal level remain unresolved. Yet, this key enabling technology for the Energy Cloud will continue to show growth due to underlying benefits dependent upon government subsidies. Some of the recent actions are discussed below.

California AB 36: This bill, which proposed to expand California’s fuel cell net energy metering (FC-NEM) program to include other efficient DNGG technologies, was vetoed by Governor Brown. The governor cited recent changes to the program and wanting to assess their effectiveness first. The goal of the bill was to make the FC-NEM program (with its 500 MW cap) technology agnostic and available to other technologies that meet certain emissions criteria. The decision keeps the larger cap exclusive to fuel cells. In a separate fuel cell development, new California projects have slowed in 2017 after new minimum biogas requirements were instituted in the Self-Generation Incentive Program.

California AB 1400: This bill, which prohibits recipients of microgrid funding from using those funds for diesel generators, was signed into law by Governor Brown in October. Though not exactly related to natural gas, this law continues a California lawmaking trend in aiming to limit carbon emissions—in this case as it relates to microgrids funded by the state’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program. DNGG is not currently affected by this new law. These developments take place during a time of surging microgrid activity in California, with highlights including an active $44.7 million grant funding opportunity from the California Energy Commission and an active microgrid research roadmap.

Federal Investment Tax Credit: This credit for fuel cells, microturbines, and combined heat and power was a long-standing tax credit that expired at the end of 2016. House Bill HR 1, a tax bill, includes an extension for this credit, which if passed would provide a boost to these predominantly natural gas-fueled technologies. Note that the bill does not include this provision as of this writing. According to Navigant Research estimates for fuel cells, the credit is worth about $0.02/kWh throughout the system lifetime, which can significantly affect the economics of such systems.

Such policy developments have the potential to for significant effects on this dynamic industry. As renewables and storage receive significant governmental support, the relative merits of distributed natural gas will continue to be debated and judged. Regardless of the level of direct support of technologies like fuel cells, generator sets, and microturbines, the fundamental drivers of DNGG point toward a bright future.


Thinking Outside the Box about Microgrid Technology

— November 28, 2017

When one hears the word technology, most think of a hardware gadget, something tangible that can be touched and is a literal tool. However, some prominent thought leaders take a much broader view.

Jayant Kumar, global digital grids director for GE Grid Solutions, points to better microgrid master planning tools as a technology vital to bringing the microgrid platform into full commercial viability. In a recent interview, he asked “What we are trying to do is to create a utility in a box. But how do you do that at the right economic scale? What is the right business case?” He explained that with sophisticated planning tools, the assets can be matched up with the right market landscape to reach necessary internal rate of returns to make projects pencil out.

Investments in Microgrid Tech to Rise

Navigant Research will soon be publishing a report on the topic of microgrid enabling technologies (MET). The focus will be on the distributed energy resources—hardware assets—that get wrapped into microgrids. Preliminary findings show combined heat and power (CHP) capturing the largest market share today, but by 2026, the leader is solar PV (with energy storage coming in second place). All told, the hardware assets (biomass, CHP, diesel, energy storage, fuel cells, hydro, solar PV, and wind) will represent approximately $90 billion in cumulative investment over the next decade.

While these numbers are staggering and may make certain investors drool, the key to unlocking the value sometimes hidden in these hardware assets is more nebulous since they delve into the realms of telecommunications, finance, and software technologies—the value of which is more difficult to count and quantify.

Mobile Phones as a Microgrid Enabling Technology

In the developing world, there is an acute need for financial products to pave the way for microgrids linked to energy access initiatives. In these markets, it is the proliferation of mobile phones—and the infrastructure required to enable communications (i.e., cell phone towers)—that could also be considered MET. Mobile phones create the infrastructure to enable payment for energy services on an as used incremental basis that is driving growth in smaller scale microgrid systems.

For example, Simpa Networks is one of many innovators bringing energy access through microgrids to developing world markets via the pay-as-you-go model. It installs solar PV systems in households or small businesses and customers pay for the electricity consumed, like prepaid mobile phone plans. The payments count toward the purchase price of the solar PV system so customers will eventually own the system.

Controllers: The Magic Sauce

The other MET to be sized in my forthcoming report is microgrid controls spending. This is the linchpin software enabling technology that remains the bottleneck to full-scale commercial viability (just ask Duke Energy). The US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Institute of Electrical Energy Engineers (IEEE) are playing critical roles in taking a bit of the mystery out of what is now the magic sauce that makes a microgrid work (or not.)

Perhaps the most interesting initiative was launched by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in what is being described as a shootout under a controller-in-the-loop test pitting controller against controller. Stage 1 involved five vendors in a Microgrid Innovation Challenge where all five vendors competed in managing a simulated highly complex microgrid. The companies competed for 100 minutes on seven performance parameters. Next, NREL will pit two finalists in a real-world hardware environment in December 2017. The winner will be selected as the controller to be used at NREL’s microgrid testing facility.


Postcard from Puerto Rico

— November 1, 2017

It has been more than a month since Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico. The majority of this US territory remains without reliable electricity and is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. The lack of power in Puerto Rico, as well as the hurricanes that struck Florida and Texas, have turned up the heat on utilities, regulators, and the federal government regarding how best to rebuild power grids for greater resilience to protect against future outages during natural disasters.

While companies such as Tesla proclaim that Puerto Rico provides the perfect opportunity to deploy solar PV plus energy storage microgrids to rebuild regional power supplies, others argue the quickest way for restoration lies with fixing the traditional hub-and-spoke centralized transmission grid. Where does the truth stand? As is often the case, somewhere between these two extremes. Though I personally would invest more heavily into microgrids, I would not restrict them to solar energy because hurricanes can both damage and limit power production. Nonetheless, wind-powered mobile microgrids were part of the immediate response, smart dual-fuel generators should also be vital parts of the microgrid solution mix.

Can Lessons from the Military Rebuild Puerto Rico?

There are some important lessons that Puerto Rico can benefit from if it listens to the US military, a key responder to the crisis in Puerto Rico.

As I noted in a recent blog, the US Department of Defense (DOD) and data centers have been wrestling with how to maintain uptime while scaling back its reliance upon diesel generation. In a new Navigant Research white paper sponsored by Schneider Electric, I argue that innovative business models, such as microgrids as a service, may be the ticket to transforming industries reluctant to embrace distributed energy resources (DER) innovations. Likewise, military bases are following similar pathways forward, eliminating capital costs and financing upgrades through energy efficiency savings. Case in point is the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia, which is the DOD’s first net zero energy military base.

The military microgrid market was viewed as an early adopter before budget issues helped stall the market. While a uniquely US market in terms of adoption for stationary bases, its effect is global since the DOD has sites scattered across the globe. Forward operating bases and mobile tactical microgrids can operate as standalone systems or interconnect with traditional grids and have been featured in recent conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A new report from Navigant Research notes that momentum for DOD microgrids is picking up.

Military Technology – Civilian Implications

The DOD has played a remarkably consistent role in commercializing new technologies that provide tremendous social benefits within the larger civilian realm. The Internet, created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1969, is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the DOD’s contributions to consumer markets. Along with accelerating the commercialization of traditional manufactured products such as aircraft, the DOD has also pushed the envelope on IT. These advances have been vital to all smart grid platforms, including microgrids.

Hurricanes and related rain and wind do pose challenges to all forms of power supply, including microgrids. Yet, developing a distributed and diverse portfolio of resources is always the best bet, whether one is talking about the wholesale or retail delivery system (note that Cuba’s reliance on microgrids limits outages compared to its Caribbean neighbors). While the Trump administration favors traditional energy pathways, the DOD has forged new ground in DER. One option for Puerto Rico could be to carve out a lead role for the DOD in rebuilding its power system, showcasing lessons learned from both domestic bases and remote power bolstering national security, while at the same time delivering the humanitarian services so direly needed by the local population.


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