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Utility 2.0 and the Dynamic Microgrid

Superstorm disruption calls for a new utility architecture.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2013

and renewable ones. It also must be able to handle fuels directly, such as natural gas for heating or processes, or to generate electricity via fuel cells, microturbines, or reciprocating engines. 

Self-sufficient at least for short periods and, possibly, on a continual basis: The control mechanism within the dynamic microgrid can handle balancing the supply-demand equation within itself, or continuously as a part of a larger grid. 

Advanced self-healing capabilities: The self-healing capabilities associated with the dynamic microgrid include features such as the ability to: 1) decouple itself from the main grid automatically under certain conditions; 2) reconfigure and reroute power through different feeders upon the occurrence of a faulted condition; and 3) drop one or more loads depending upon their criticality at a given time. 

n Automatically optimize supply and demand resources: This ability would be in stark contrast to today’s grid where demand generally drives the need for supply. This functionality requires that the optimizer must consider conditions such as demand response in all its variations, integrating renewables ( e.g., wind, solar power), electric transportation, energy storage, and other local energy resources to be used and managed. Also, depending upon the location, the dispatch solution needs to consider wholesale and retail electric markets. 

Evolutionary Phases

Taking the same storm scenario through a distribution grid that can deconstruct itself into dynamic microgrids, the outcome would be very different. ( See Figure 2 ).

We believe the move to a dynamic microgrid will follow an evolutionary process, from today’s situation to that of a sophisticated set of sensors managed by advanced control systems able to work in a centralized and decentralized manner, delivering the most reliable power possible at the lowest cost, while, at the same time focusing on taking maximum advantage of localized, distributed renewable sources of supply. ( See Figure 1 ).

The phases likely will develop as follows:

First, we’ll see the formation and identification of natural microgrids. The first phase will be established within today’s distribution grid along natural boundaries; good examples here are college and university campuses, business parks, corporate campuses (e.g., Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif.) remote mining and industrial towns, and military bases. College campuses – such as the University of California at San Diego, New York University, and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago – already have begun to look at ways to become less dependent upon their local electric utilities. Over time, on the global stage, this will also include a plethora of apartment and condo complexes, many of which already are installing backup power systems to operate when the local utility is unable to deliver power reliably.

In the second phase, natural microgrids will start investing in newer and more sophisticated sensors, controls, and smart-grid technologies, like distributed generation, storage, and demand response. A combination of these mechanisms, supported by a full-featured control capability, will allow the microgrid to sustain its energy needs in the short term and, in a mission-critical mode, even for extended periods (from months to a year). 

The U.S. military is investigating installing such