Over 60 people joined Part I of our microgrid meetup last night to hear three excellent speakers. Astrid Atkinson, CEO and Co-Founder of Camus Energy, discussed the microgrid management software her company is developing. It looks like it will be one of the keys to the spread of microgrids as it harmonizes all the components with the grid. They have deployed initially with small, community-based utilities and are evolving their software rapidly. Already, the Camus software is pretty sophisticated and easy to use, but the whole role of microgrids is evolving. She answered questions on how to handle “nested microgrids” (microgrids made up of other microgrids) and their struggles working with large utilities who are not thrilled about the prospect of undermining their current capital investments.
Assistant Electrical Engineering Professor Atousa Yazdani of the Sac State College of Engineering and Computer Science described the challenges in engineering systems for bidirectional power flow and for coordinating microgrids to assure reliability. While there were many challenges there are many business opportunities in figuring out better inverter systems and islanding/grid reconnection systems. Key to the solution is likely adding more sensors and controls deep in the distribution grid. She did not think this would be too expensive if done cleverly and taking advantage of the drop in microelectronics prices.
Gerry Braun, who has worked on community energy for decades, talked about the more political challenges of expanding the use of microgrids as exit fees are applied to any departing community utilities. He was skeptical at this point that the fees are in practical terms temporary. He sees them going on for years. In the case of Valley Clean Energy in Yolo County, the exit fee is 4 cents per kWh to pay the utility for the parts of the system VCE will no longer use. He said the size of this fee practically eliminates the possibility of users seeing the actual much lower rates of power from renewables or of communities generating “profits” that can be plowed back into more renewable energy and efficiency investments in their areas. He also supported Prof. Yazdani’s point that much more information exchange is needed within and among microgrids to manage them well. His simple message was that “smart meters alone don’t make the distribution grid smart”.
Probably the best part of the session was the lively discussion going on in the background in the chat room where dozens of questions were being asked and answered by the speakers in real-time.
Part 2 of our microgrid discussion will explore more on Braun’s point focusing on the changes in customer rates and rate structures that need to and will accompany the spread of microgrids. It is a challenging transition and there are many economic pitfalls that must be avoided. This next session will be on December 3. Don’t miss it.