Tales of microgrid ingenuity (and community)

Schneider Electric
Signage from the microgrid opening ceremony at the Gordon Bulbolz Nature Preserve in Appleton, Wisconsin.

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Perhaps it’s my inborn bias towards news about technology companies (in my former journalism life, I covered the high-tech industry), but my mind keeps wandering this week back to the revelation in early November that software company VMware not only plans to build a microgrid at its Palo Alto, California, headquarters, it also is teaming up with its host city to design the installation.

The project is driven by one of the sustainability community’s frequent allies, the need for resiliency during emergency outages. In that regard, it is like many installations that have been greenlighted by the U.S. military (PDF).

VMware is pitching its own microgrid as a potential backbone for a far more responsive emergency response system, something that every California municipality must be considering keenly as wildfires rage across the state.

The project is also important because of what these partners hope to learn about technical hurdles (integrating microgrids is not for the faint of heart!) and about effective collaboration (many legacy policies are in place that make orchestrating an installation such as this inherently frustrating; all minds on deck).

Few details of what will go into the VMware "proof of concept" are available, only that the microgrid will combine renewable electricity generation (probably solar), energy storage capacity and software that will integrate it with Palo Alto’s municipal utility infrastructure.

The other thing that intrigues me is the identity of one person likely to be involved with getting this thing off the ground — at least behind the scenes. Akamai’s former senior director of sustainability, Nicola Peill-Moelter, joined VMware this month as director of sustainability innovation, a job change she tweeted about last weekend. Given Peill-Moelter’s role in helping catalyze one of the industry’s first "aggregated" power purchase agreements with Apple, Swiss Re and Etsy, I suspect that VMware won’t be afraid to break some rules with this microgrid.

Speaking of breaking rules, another system you’ll want to watch closely is being planned by the Port of Long Beach, the second busiest seaport in the United States, in collaboration with energy management company Schneider Electric.

Partially funded with a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission, this microgrid will include a 300-kilowatt solar array, multiple types of energy storage, software and energy management controls from Schneider Electric and EnSync Energy controllers for demand response, peak shaving and islanding applications.

Ironically, the installation also will include a diesel generator, a "practicality" because of existing engineering and municipal codes, according to Mark Feasel, vice president of electric utility segment and smart grid for Schneider Electric. The obligation to carry diesel or another traditional form of backup generation remains a requirement for microgrids in many regulated industries. It was one of the main hurdles healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente grappled with when it wrote the prescription for its own renewable microgrid.

You can see many concepts described above in action at the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton, Wisconsin. The environmental center is home to an advanced microgrid designed by Schneider Electric and Faith Technologies, a local energy engineering firm. The Faith CEO is a Bubolz trustee, and the firm helped fund the project. This is a sophisticated installation that combines microturbines for combined heat and power, fuel cells, natural gas generation, energy storage, energy management software and solar photovoltaic technologies, noted Don Wingate, vice president of sales, utility solutions, at Schneider Electric. Electric-vehicle charging technologies are on the drawing board, as are (possibly) a wind turbine.

In the short time since this microgrid has been operational — about 10 months — the site has become a "beacon for industry, for government and for research people to see how they can learn from it," Wingate said. He recounted a gathering there last summer of several hundred electrical contractors.

As they were being briefed, a massive thunderstorm knocked out the power for more than 12,000 nearby residents, but the microgrid kept working. On a less-positive note: the preserve isn’t allowed to transfer any of its power to its neighbors, even in situations of that nature, because of local regulations.

By the way, Schneider Electric announced another commercial microgrid installation last week: This one is with Bowery Farming, for a facility in New Jersey that has been described as the "most technological sophisticated commercial farm in the word." The project, slated for completion by the first quarter of 2019, will combine solar panels, a natural gas generator and a lithium-ion battery interconnected behind the meter. The integrator is Scale Microgrid Solutions.