Sunday, July 28, 2013


A Macro Look at the Micro Grid

By Henry Curtis

This is the second in a series of alternative energy futures. In the first article I wrote about establishing a rival utility, be it  county-owned, privately-owned or a co-op model. In this article I examine micro grids.

 Imagine a lumbering dinosaur facing extinction. Imagine the transmission grid of today being replaced by the micro-grid of tomorrow.

The phrase “Micro Grid” has three distinct meanings.

Some use the term to denote size. Lana`i has a micro grid when compared to larger Maui and Oahu grids.

Some use the term to denote an innovation hub for demonstration projects. NELHA has a test bed micro grid. The facility is testing various Distributed Generation systems to see how they all work together as part of a single larger system.

Some use the term to denote islanding. A micro grid is a segment of a larger grid that can be islanded, that is, remain powered when the rest of the grid crashes.  Some rooftops systems can be islanded.

In September 2011 the La Jolla campus of the University of California, San Diego  was an island of light amid great darkness as large parts of Southern California, Arizona and Mexico were blacked out. 

The campus has a large 42 MW micro grid including 1.2 MW of solar panels, a thermal energy storage system, and a 30 MW Combined Cooling, Heat, and Power (CCHP) system which operates at 61% efficiency. Together they provide 80% of the yearly energy needs of the campus.

The Lana`i micro grid is one tenth the size of the UCSD micro grid. Larry Ellison, the new owner of Lana`i, has hired Byron Washom, the UCSD Director of Strategic Energy Initiatives, to be the chief architect for the Lana`i micro grid.

North Kohala farmers have installed a 100-foot wind turbine, in conjunction with solar and batteries,  to power water-pumping  and irrigation systems. Project developer Gen-X Energy Development LLC received financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy through the Hawaii Renewable Energy Development Venture.  Gen-X Energy is based in Maui and is the brainchild of renewable energy developers  Leo Caires and Fred  Brown. 

The microgrid system was built by Northern Power Systems (NPS). It is expected to generate 215,000 kWh/year. NPS focuses on high cost markets, from Kohala to the North Pole, where they built  a wind, solar and diesel system at a  weather station.

Military self-generation has boomeranged.  Old-timers may remember that during WW2 the military build generation and transmission lines at Pearl Harbor. At one point a ship-based generator also supported the grid. After the war HECO agreed to take over the military grid, and have ratepayers finance it, under the condition that the military rip out their generators.

In 2012 ZBB Energy Corp. won a contract to build a microgrid at Pearl Harbor.

Sandia National Laboratories is working with the military on developing Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security (SPIDERS) Microgrids. In 2014 O`ahu’s Camp H.M. Smith will be able to power itself through on-base solar and diesel facilities.

Micro grids can be built and run as co-ops, educational ventures, non profits, and private or public companies. They can be tailored to match reliability levels to the desires of its members. 

It is often but erroneously thought that commercial loads are paying more than their share for electricity. The argument is that it is easier for utilities to serve a few larger customers that to provide power for a whole bunch of smaller users. This is faulty logic because the larger customers often require higher levels of reliability, and the added redundancy is financed by all customers.

One scenario is to restructure the existing transmission grid into a series of interconnected micro grids, similar to the way Big Island highways string together separate communities.

Another approach is for customers who are part of the parent grid to form an offspring micro-grid, and as the local power managers mature in understanding how their micro grid operates, they can leave the parent grid behind.

The old system will have a lot of aging components, whereas the child will have brand new highly efficient systems and thus have significantly lower costs.

In April 2013, an Infocast conference on commercial microgrids was held in Washington D.C..

Brian Patterson, chairman of Emerge Alliance, noted that “Distributed generation and the internet have the same characteristics. Your laptop manages its own power and can be on the grid or off the grid. It can run your USB light and all kinds of other things you can plug into it. The only thing that prevents you from doing that today with power is regulations about crossing rights of way and things like that. Without such regulations, when the solar system on your roof is not being used fully, you could sell the spare electricity to your neighbor.”

Rutgers University generates much of its own electricity. The university has a an 8.8-megawatt solar array that covers parking lots, a 1.4-megawatt centralized solar facility, and a 13-megawatt cogeneration plant.

Rutgers energy conservation manager Michael Kornitas sees a bright future for microgrids. Speaking at the Infocast Conference he stated, “We are more likely to see a move to distributed generation on a massive scale that will give rise to individual homeowners as generators. It will follow the model of the internet. There will be some large entities and some small entities.”

Also speaking at the Infocast Conference, Mark Crowdis, president of Think Energy Inc., remarked, “I have a client in Hawaii who is hopping mad with the local utility. It is entirely possible for small communities to disconnect from the grid in the higher-cost markets.”

On June 28, 2013 the HECO Companies filed a 2,2000 page report with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. The Integrated Resource Planning (IRP) document includes both a 20-year Scenario planning process and a 5-Year Action Plan. Except for community comments, and one passing reference to a possible Lana`i micro grid, the utility managed to avoid any references to micro grids.

What rightfully alarms the Public Utilities Commission is that some HECO customers will refuse to installed energy efficiency devices, on-site generation, or become customers of micro-grids or decide to leave the grid altogether. Instead they will continue to rely on the HECO companies. They will wind up paying ever higher utility bills as our incumbent dinosaur collapses under its own weight.

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Didn't I read that HART will power the train with a micro-grid system? Hahaha....of course I didn't.


When I lived in the Amalgamated coop in Brooklyn, the five buildings were powered by a local diesel generating plant which was later converted to natural gas. The conversion was paid for by Con Ed, which also wanted to purchase power from the plant. Would that arrangement be described as a 'micro grid' ? There was talk over the years, I understand, of nearby buildings hooking up to buy the excess electricity, but I did not follow that and most likely it never went anywhere.

But here in Hawaii, could a property with lots of roof area put up PV, say, and sell excess capacity across a property line to adjacent neighbors lacking roof area? Is this disallowed?


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