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Utility 2.0 and the Dynamic Microgrid

Superstorm disruption calls for a new utility architecture.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2013

microgrids in many of their onshore and remote bases. During this phase, progress will continue in distributed generation (possibly more PV-based power) and storage. Demand response will become a key part of the mechanism driving sustainability if and when the microgrid is disconnected from the main utility, or even to control costs through targeted management of demand charges. 

In phase 3, we’ll see formation of more microgrids, and the movement to a distributed grid architecture. As the success of phase 2 makes microgrids more popular and business-case relevant, newer microgrids will be created. We’ll start seeing smaller cities and housing sub-developments moving in this direction.

This also could be considered a step toward municipalization of some utility systems (at least in the United States), in which smaller cities won’t completely secede from the local utility but will look for more independence and better control of their costs. Depending upon their constituencies and locations, they also will spend more money and effort on getting local sources of energy (especially PV, wind, biomass, etc.), storage (with community energy storage or larger storage devices), and demand response. In California, several initiatives are moving in this direction under the state’s Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) policies.

As microgrids become more prevalent, it’s easy to visualize the distribution grid as consisting mostly of a group of microgrids within the interconnected grid, encompassing both transmission and distribution. When needed (or during a storm emergency or other restoration scenario) the interconnected grid could be split into a set of pre-defined microgrids, fully able to function independently at least for some time – possibly in a reduced capability mode, but nevertheless providing energy to minimize disruption.

There is a certain level of sophistication that must be in place before this type of a system can be operational – from sensors and controls to visualization tools, to complex control system mechanism with a centralized DMS (distribution management system) able to function in an interconnected distribution grid mode, and manage each disconnected microgrid via a common set of tools. This control system also could be managed from either a central location or the cloud.

Emergence of these capabilities in the grid will herald the fourth phase, the movement to dynamic microgrids. 

Until now, microgrids along the evolutionary path were all static, meaning that their configuration was pre-defined. In the next step on the evolutionary path, the utility system will form microgrids as required, based on the right supply-demand balance and the duration they’ll be required to operate in island mode. 

Their position as the last step on the evolutionary path isn’t intended to imply that the dynamic microgrid is necessarily several years away; rather, it’s intended to identify specific technological sensors and controls that will be required, as well as policy and tariff changes that must be in place to support the viable existence of the dynamic microgrid. 

Dynamic microgrids also need locational capacity – that is, a network of generation sources (distributed, renewable, or otherwise) that will become the sources of supply around which these dynamic microgrids can be created at need,