May Article Solar Panels Large Courtesy Of Hitachi Abb

Weather is Uncertain; DER Isn’t

May 17, 2021
Technology is proving to be a good substitute for wire in the air.

Have you ever surfed the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) website? It seemed like the ideal place to research the science behind the claims about extreme weather patterns. After all, before NASA weather was really a hit or miss proposition.  It’s hard to deny the impact weather is having on the electric grid worldwide, but there is a lot of speculation concerning the validity of extreme weather being the new normal.

So it seemed like NASA’s would be a good starting point. Without getting into a lot of details, here is a summation. Last year was the warmest year on record. Weather patterns are a complex interaction between global atmosphere conditions from the artic to the equator and everything in between. That’s why Arctic conditions happen at lower latitudes and warm temperatures are happening at higher latitudes.

As a result, something like Winter Storm Uri brought snow on Galveston Island, and nearly caused ERCOT’s power grid to collapse. It also explains severe droughts, catastrophic wildfires, and back-to-back category 5 hurricanes. In a nutshell, yes, it’s the new norm. Taking that a step further, the power delivery system needs to adapt, and digital technology is the best tool in the toolbox.

There’s a lot of discussion about new norm weather patterns, but to say the global transmission grid is faulty based on the events from ERCOT’s recent disaster isn’t reasonable. ERCOT has lots of problems, but many are self-inflected. That will be a subject that will be scrutinized in depth as time goes on and best left to the experts. Let’s focus on DER and one of its offshoots, microgrids, and their impact on the new norm.

Smart Dynamic Solutions

The smart grid is all about reinforcing the grid with digital technologies. The correct application can minimize any extreme event that happens with fast recovery. These digital technologies can be straight forward as something like Tesla’s solar roof and Powerwall combination or complex as Hitachi ABB Power Grids’ e-mesh PowerStore.

Hitachi ABB’s application has been designed for both grid-connect and off-grid uses. It connects to various power sources and can be installed on either side of the meter for uninterrupted power. This scalable microgrid application includes an energy storage feature all wrapped up in an intelligent power management system. It’s fully customizable and flexibility makes it ideal for individualized applications.

Talking with Maxine Ghavi, Head of Grid Edge Solutions, Hitachi ABB Power Grids brought out some interesting ideas. Ghavi said, “We need more battery energy storage in place to provide resiliency and availability of power, especially during extreme weather events. For example, many of our island customers are successfully using microgrids to keep operating during a hurricane. Rules and regulations for use of these technology are changing, but need to be updated in order to expand their use. The faster we go the more we can accomplish.”

Ghavi continued saying, “The grid requires more flexibility to maximize the potential of renewable sources. Then, as you bring more assets on, you need more optimization to ensure the generating mix is delivering the right performance. To achieve flexibility and optimization, you must look at the system/network as a whole, vs individual components.”

Addressing the New Norm

Thanks to these new weather norms, last year’s wildfire season was brutal. In the US alone there were 58,000 wildfires burning on about 10,270,000 acres, making it one of the worst fire seasons in history. In an effort to stop California wildfires before they get started, the state’s major utilities, working with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), developed a controversial strategy called the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS).

These PSPS measures have not been well received by their customers, however. The PSPS approach has led to prolonged outages that can last from a few hours to many days and then be followed by another PSPS. Fortunately, there are a lot of distributed energy resources (DER) and microgrid applications available to lessen the impact of the PSPS on the grid’s customers.

Early this year, the CPUC adopted new rules, rates, and tariffs  designed to enable  both community and third party operated microgrids. It’s called the Microgrid Incentive Program (MIP) and it’s funded with a US$200 million budget. The budget will be divided between the state’s three major utilities.

MIP’s goal is to support the critical needs of vulnerable communities impacted by the PSPS with a more rapid pace of clean energy backup power implementation. The CPUC had allowed customers to own microgrids prior to the MIP, but this program is different. It sets up grants for eligible third party microgrids and complex multi-property microgrids.

The city of Gonzales is planning the state’s largest multi-customer microgrid. It will be a US$70 million community scale microgrid for a business park in the city. The microgrid includes 14.5 megawatt (MW)  of solar, 27.5 megawatt-hours (MWh) of batteries and 10 MWs of natural-gas generation.

Along with microgrids, there is a growing presence of DER battery energy storage system (BESS) applications. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Tesla are partnering on a 182.5 MW/ 730 MWh expandable to 1.1 GWh (gigawatt-hours) lithium-ion BESS at PG&E’s Moss Landing substation. The BESS is expected to be in service in the spring or early summer of 2021.

Technology  Challenge

DER technologies offer methods of handling other extreme weather events too. The Texas energy infrastructure wasn’t designed for extreme cold weather. Like California, ERCOT’s millions of customers experienced rolling blackouts and extended power outages as power producers struggled to supply electricity. When the storm was over, many portions of the distribution network were without electric power for many days while repairs were underway. Discussing this with Maxine Ghavi, she said, “The “future” grid will require specific technologies to help improve reliability, especially at the grid edge.”

Ghavi pointed out, “Power technology: for example battery storage; and we are seeing this momentum already. Automation technology: this is critical to optimize the asset; to maximize its value; and in managing and optimizing the increasing number of DERs. Digital technology: we are seeing great potential for data analytics, artificial intelligence, and applications. Cloud applications, especially, are key to evaluating the economics of an asset and maximizing its performance.”  

Ghavi closed saying, “If we seize this moment, there is great potential for more direct and sustained collaboration across geographies, governments, business and other stakeholders to improve our grid systems. Modern infrastructure, especially updates to power grids, is vital for driving a greener economic recovery and sustainable energy future.”

Winter Storm Uri brought reports of microgrids providing power in Texas both during and after the winter storm. One report said that a microgrid company, Enchanted Rock, had 130 operational microgrids during the storm. Those microgrids powered 94 H-E-B supermarkets in Texas during the outage, which helped untold numbers of customers. In addition, Enchanted Rock reported, “Their customer list includes Buc-ee’s. water treatment centers, and assisted living facilities.”

Another company, Sunnova, installs systems made up of panels, batteries, and electronics from various suppliers. These residential microgrids operate singularly or aggregated together for neighborhood power systems. One of Sunnova’s customers told the Houston Chronical that Winter Storm Uri was a non-event for his family. Reports like that will help with solar microgrid sales.

Since the storm, Gambit Energy Storage, a subsidiary of Tesla, reported they are developing a BESS project about 40 miles from Houston near Angleton, Texas. The utility scale energy storage project is rated 100 MWs and is expected to be in service around June 1, 2021. This BESS will charge from the grid when energy prices are low and discharge when the grid has a shortage of electricity. Tesla has a similarly sized BESS project in South Australia, which has proven very beneficial to the grid with its fast response times.

Last year the research company, Report and Markets, published a report saying they expected DER technology would play a pivotal role in the global power mix. Supporting that statement, they reported that about US$53.14 billion had been invested in the global DER market in 2019. They projected that over the next decade the expected global DER investment would expand to about US$846 billion. Suppliers such as GE, Eaton Corp, Hitachi ABB, S&C Electric, Schneider, and Siemens have been identified as key player in the marketplace.

There has been a lot of research over the years by the groups tracking grid interruptions and power blackouts that noted 2020 had many outages and the trend seems to be rising. They have found there are many causes for power interruptions, but the single leading cause of power outages is severe weather. It’s probably a safe assumption that DER, microgrid and energy storage applications are going to be increasing on both sides of the meter. These technologies are no longer used only in the remote corners of the grid. Cities are proving to need them as much if not more!

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