A brutal storm ripped through southwestern Minnesota in April and snapped 2,000 power poles. Worthington Public Utilities kept the lights on with a seat-of-the-pants microgrid.
exploring the microgrid concept or moved forward with concrete programs to support development. Most notably, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) awarded grants in the first round of a program to support development of community energy projects, and announced plans for a second round. Other policy initiatives moved forward in California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and others. Some states convened workshops and commissioned studies. (More disclosure – I served as primary author for Minnesota Microgrids: Barriers, Opportunities, and Pathways Toward Energy Assurance , a U.S. DOE-funded white paper study commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Commerce as part of the state’s Energy Assurance Plan.) Interest among state policymakers bodes well for microgrids, because it forms the basis for reviewing and adjusting industry regulations to support cost-effective and competitive development.
#2: DoD Took Action: Military customers represent a large segment of the potential microgrid market, and in 2013 the U.S. Department of Defense awarded major contracts for onsite energy work – not all for microgrids, but for major components of them – totaling several hundred million dollars. The Army and Lockheed Martin commissioned a microgrid at Ft. Bliss, and the U.S. Northern Command started a project at Ft. Carson. The Navy began developing microgrids at Pearl Harbor and Camp Smith, the Pacific Command HQ. West Point Military Academy is thinking along similar lines. Thus DoD’s work on microgrids represents the second most important milestone in 2013, and portends major project opportunities in the coming years.
#1: Microgrid Hype Peaked: The industry buzz about microgrids belies a basic fact: the advanced microgrids that people usually talk about are relatively scarce things. By some reckoning, only a handful of really sophisticated microgrids of appreciable size are operating in the United States today, with another few handfuls at various stages of deployment around the world. (Of course there are tens of thousands of backup power systems all over the place, but sophisticated, smart microgrids with active load-balancing systems for sustainable islanded operations are fairly rare.) Additionally, several major corporations are installing new onsite energy systems that can be described as microgrids, or that set the foundations for them. But unquestionably, the microgrid topic became overhyped during 2013 – and some signs suggest that hype might have reached its peak. Some of the most recent microgrid market studies have scaled back growth projections – suggesting that a dose of reality is beginning to slow down the hyperventilation.
If hype is indeed beginning to diminish, it bodes well for microgrid development over the next few years – as we leave behind the “peak of inflated expectations” (in Gartner Group hype-cycle parlance), go through the “trough of disillusionment,” and move toward the “plateau of productivity.”
Over-hype is a problem because many companies that initially were very excited about the microgrid business have been disappointed to find that while potential opportunities might abound, economically viable and financeable projects are only just beginning to emerge. Such disappointment is detrimental to microgrid development, because it can lead to the conclusion that microgrids are all hype and just a