Grid grist and microgrid musings

This article is drawn from the new Energy Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Thursdays.

Let's just agree that it's impossible to keep up with all of the affronts that the current U.S. administration is perpetuating on every environmental front — whether it's advocating an industry-led framework for regulating toxic chemicals, turning off the faucet on clean water policies or pulling the plug on support for clean power research and incentives. This list could go on, but even cyberspace has limits.

One saga that I'm watching with particularly keen interest surrounds Energy Secretary Rick Perry's ongoing attempts to force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to declare that coal and nuclear plants must live on in the interest of national security. Apparently, the White House's friends in the coal industry didn't like the memo issued last year shrugging off that argument. So they're asking for a do-over review.

I worry about this assault because it could threaten competitive wholesale markets by paying money-losing coal and nuclear generators to stay online. That could make it more economically difficult for state commissions to support the ongoing transition to clean power. Just last week, FERC issued rulings related to a closely PJM proposal that could disrupt the whole notion of capacity markets. In short, the disruption is just beginning.

One of the more ironic twists of all this bickering, in my mind, is that it's focused mainly on generation capacity as the hallmark of resilience. Newsflash: If electric wires and substations and transmissions are knocked out in a storm, it doesn't matter if you have 30 days of coal stockpiled to save the day. 

The collective "we" should be focusing far more attention on innovation within the transmission system. There's a reason we're hearing about more corporate and industrial microgrids powered by renewables, such as one installed by Kaiser Permanente at its medical center in Richmond, California. Even though the agency regulating the California healthcare chain was skeptical about Kaiser's decision to look beyond diesel generators or fuel cells to something new, the installation could serve as a model for future investments — and not just for Kaiser.

For the grid geeks among you, I recommend this well-researched article ("Lost in Transmission: World's Biggest Machine Needs Update") on what could be next for American's 707,000 miles of high-voltage power lines.

If you want to brush up specifically about the latest microgrid developments, here are five stories I'm reading:

  1. Alabama Microgrid Studies Future of Energy Infrastructure (U.S. News & World Report) — The focus is on a microgrid sprawled across five acres and supported by solar and natural gas generation resources. It's testing backup applications for 62 new homes (average priced $300,000) in a suburban development.
  2. Advanced Microgrid a Natural Fit for Wisconsin Project (Power) — The focus is on a Schneider Electric project at the Gordon Bulbolz Nature Preserve. It also uses a mix of generating systems, including fuel cells, solar and natural gas.
  3. Hawaii Microgrid Bill Aims to Keep the State a Model for Others (Utility Dive) — An update on legislation that will make it simpler to justify investments.
  4. Microgrid at Port of Los Angeles Nears Finish Line (Microgrid Knowledge) — A $27 million undertaking that will modernize the port with a solar system, a 2.6 megawatt-hour battery and oodles of electric vehicle infrastructure. (And more.) Like other projects under way, the system can be "islanded" to act independently of the local grid.
  5. Army Engineer: Microgrids are the Future of U.S. Energy Security (U.S. Army blog) — A firsthand account from the task force chief and microgrid project manager in Puerto Rico.

As has been the case for the past several years, our upcoming VERGE Energy conference (part of VERGE 18 Oct. 16-18 in Oakland) will feature a number of sessions about resilience, distributed generation and microgrids including a half-day, invitation-only summit. Speaking of VERGE 18, our special summer rate expires on my birthday, July 20. Act before prices go up. Until next week, stay energized.