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The many facets of the VERGE 22 microgrid

The renewable energy generation, management and storage infrastructure behind the VERGE conference microgrid offer inspiration for organizations considering their own onsite clean energy installation.

A crowd of people watching a speaker, who is describing equipment outside a conference center.

A crowd of VERGE 22 attendees tours the microgrid. Photo by GreenBiz

When VERGE started nearly 10 years ago as the only conference focused on the convergence of climate and sustainability, the Cleantech 1.0 bubble had popped and Superstorm Sandy had put the power of microgrids front and center. At that time, GreenBiz Group CEO Eric Faurot was inspired to ask, "What can we do that models the future, in 10 years what do we hope we will be talking about?" The answer came in the form of an onsite microgrid.

Since 2013, VERGE has invited attendees to engage with the concepts of the clean energy transition on a whole new level — with the GreenBiz operations team and integration partners building microgrids on site to support the conference's energy consumption while showcasing powerful new technologies and making the invisible, visible. 

The first step in maximizing a company's energy impact is personalizing its energy infrastructure. In sunny San Jose, California, the generation behind the VERGE 22 microgrid modeled that of the local grid, pulling from multiple sources of solar electricity. Systems from Yotta Energy, BoxPower, Smartflower and All Power Labs ensured that the 50-kilowatt load needed to power the enormous mainstage program was secure. But each part of the microgrid offered something unique, and generation was only a small piece of the solution.

A photo of a conference center roof showing the stage setup

The VERGE 22 mainstage setup. Photo by GreenBiz

Beating peak demand

One of the main reasons companies are moving towards microgrids is the promise of carbon-free energy, but reality hits when they experience firsthand the challenge of intermittency. When the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, old diesel generators are fired up and many fall back on the consistency of our fossil fuel legacy. 

At VERGE 2022, systems from All Power Labs, Blue Planet Energy and Yotta banished those moments to the past. At the center of the conference microgrid, the Power Pallet renewable power generator from All Power Labs was used to feed agricultural and forestry waste through a multi-stage gasification process to produce as much as 25 kilowatts. Compared to solar, this technology offers low CapEx, high energy density and portability as a solution for creating resiliency and stability across a microgrid. The Power Pallet is also a cheaper source of energy than the legacy alternatives, with gasoline or diesel currently priced from 25 to 75 cents per kilowatt-hour more than gasified biomass.

Unlike diesel, the fuel for Power Pallet can often be obtained at little to no cost, and it is capable of contributing to a strategy for carbon-negative operations. Through pyrolysis, the carbon in the biomass is converted to biochar, which locks it away. That makes the stored carbon more resistant to decay. 

A range of energy storage was deployed within the VERGE microgrid to support the solar and other generation resources with load demand. Blue Planet anchored the system, offering 125 kW in storage with its fire-safe, non-toxic, modular lithium iron phosphate cells. For other battery technologies, durability has continued to limit practicality and cost effectiveness, but at 8,000 cycles at 100 percent depth of discharge, Blue Planet’s unique design allows for nearly 21 years of reliable storage. 

With new levels of public and private funding, energy storage is increasingly coming in all shapes and sizes. Yotta's SolarLeaf is described as the industry's first plug-and-play storage-plus solar option. By storing the batteries behind the panels, the system offers more control over the solar production while offsetting installation costs and providing 1 kWh of capacity for every solar panel, according to the company. Suddenly even the smallest organization can become an active participant in smoothing renewable energy’s notorious intermittency problem.

Gluing it all together

Since 2018, Ageto Energy has been the systems integration mastermind controlling all of the numerous variables and variations of VERGE’s microgrids. Ageto’s controller acts as the glue holding together distributed energy resources (DERs), managing the microgrid's complexity. Controllers allow energy managers to visualize in real time where the flow of power is moving in a system; they alert you when something goes wrong. 

ARC, Ageto’s software and controller, turns a collection of energy resources into an independent power grid. ARC manages supply and demand in real time, maximizes the various generation and energy storage assets, saves money on utility bills and sheds load in seconds, according to Ageto.

ARC has helped to pioneer a new frontier in data collection and optimization of microgrids. More accurate data means more control of the energy; it can also be used to help better automate the process of when to store energy or sell excess power back to the grid when the cost is high. As the electric grid flexes to accommodate distributed generation assets and threats associated with extreme weather, the next generation of controllers illustrated by Arc has to prove 100 percent integration to allow microgrids to be considered reliable alternatives to the conventional grid. To that end, ARC seamlessly disconnects from the grid when needed. 

Another component of the microgrid was BoxPower’s MiniBox, an energy "container" meant for companies with remote or off-grid assets, such as the telecom or agriculture industry. MiniBox is a power source capable of remote monitoring and fully automated operation without any support from the grid. Forest fires have exaggerated that need as utilities are increasingly shutting off their power preemptively to help contain fires. 

MiniBox creates up to 3.8 kW from its panels and stores 30.4 kWh in its batteries while being able to switch between single- and three-phase power. 

The energy infrastructure of tomorrow won’t just be weathered wires and clunky boxes. The power of great design and usability isn’t lost on today's innovators. Before attendees even reached the steps of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, where VERGE 22 was held, they were greeted by a blooming array of Smartflower solar panels. Chasing the sun's energy as the day turns, the iconic 17-feet weave of 12 solar florets provided 2.5 kW back to support the conference and made an elegant statement. For those who don’t identify as the traditional environmentalist, beauty is hard to miss. 

Smartflower’s allure opens new locations to build solar power, placing panels front and center instead of being relegated to the rooftops. 

Solar energy panels arranged like the petals of a flower

The Smartflower at the VERGE 22 microgrid. Photo by GreenBiz

On the edge of the grid

Then there’s the other side of the spectrum, what if new design allowed renewables to be ever present in our field of view while simultaneously hidden in plain sight? Spotlight Solar’s solar-powered table, Haven, offered a place during VERGE 22 to interact with the microgrid in exactly that way. Up to eight people can sit down and enjoy cover from the sun or get lighting in the dark. With a battery capacity of 1.6 kW, Haven has enough charge for eight phones, eight hours of laptop charging and six hours of lighting without a single ray of sun. 

Also on display near the microgrid was a Trane Technologies food cooling cart that leverages clever energy design to tackle food and water insecurity. Through new innovations in passive cooling, an approach typically seen in cooling buildings, food can be protected from the increasing brunt of a warming world, while protecting farmers and vendors' already uncertain income. Suddenly supporting the grid can be about more than just energy.

While Haven and Trane's food cooling cart didn’t connect back to the  microgrid at VERGE, it’s not out of the question for similar urban design focused DERs to integrate with their local microgrid.

Another technology that could play a future role: Hydro panels from Source that literally create water out of thin air, using self-generated solar power to run the process. Deployed across 52 countries, Source's panels have tackled a range of problems from water access for remote communities to clean water for primary schools. 

A few miles up the road from the VERGE microgrid’s exposed cables was the nucleus of the digital revolution, Silicon Valley. This begs the question: What if companies applied the same ethos of risk taking, lean methodology and rapid iteration that drove those innovations to the task of creating a more reliable, resilient design for powering and controlling microgrids?

We live in a reality where the electric grid is plagued by single points of failure, providing a key reason for every company to look closer at what VERGE has done to experiment with microgrids. There’s never been a better time for companies to evolve their energy mix to unlock more resilient, reliable and cheaper energy. Every year VERGE gives us a warm reminder, we can build a carbon-free future — just look. 

Editor's note: This story was updated Nov. 21 to clarify the power sources for the Source hydro panels.

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