By Stuart McCafferty and Kevin Brown


Back in January, GridIntellect’s Chief Scientist, Kevin Brown, and I were approached by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) to pen an article on MicroGrids. If you read through all our blogs, you know that we have some opinions and pointers on a variety of smart infrastructure modernization topics, but mostly on MicroGrids. Later that month, Kevin and I sat down over a few frozen margaritas in beautiful Marathon, FL (while everyone else in the country was FREEZING) and we talked about a lot of different topics, but mostly about DC power, renewables, and (of course) MicroGrids.

Both Kevin and I love utility companies. They not only provide very reliable and affordable AC power, they have also been the source of a good portion of our consulting business over the years. We are also huge fans of renewable energy and storage primarily due to their environmental and resiliency/sustainability benefits. So, if you listen to the standard opinions of others, these are opposing, almost mutually-exclusive thought processes. We just simply don’t believe that. We believe that if you start at the loads and use them to determine the optimal generation resources, the solution becomes self-evident and fully supports a coexistence paradigm that benefits all parties – utilities, end users, renewable energy advocates, independent power producers, and regulators.

AC power is wonderful. Utilities provide lots of it reliably and at a very reasonable cost. If you have equipment that spins, has an element, or compresses something, it is the best possible solution. So, air conditioners, filament lighting, compressors, heaters, and pumps are natural loads for AC generation power sources – and it comes straight to your home or business in ample quantities most of the time.

DC power is wonderful, too. Solar panels and batteries provide native DC power. If you have equipment that is electronic, it is the correct solution. So, computer equipment, home entertainment equipment, and LED lights, are natural loads for DC generating equipment. This article describes a conceptual architecture and approach that suggests sizing your renewable energy generation project to only address the needs of the DC equipment. This allows both utilities and renewable power to coexist in mutually-beneficial ways. Utilities can reduce or eliminate their expensive (and sometimes environmentally-unfriendly) peaking power plant needs and tap into clean energy distributed generation. Renewable energy users can reduce the costs of construction and maintenance since their needs are restricted to just the DC loads. The solution is also more efficient since lossy DC-AC and AC-DC transformations are reduced or even eliminated in totally ideal situations. And, rooftop solar becomes a compelling solution for a lot of buildings.

Yes, there are some challenges to overcome, but the concept is pretty simple, practical, and a win-win for both utilities and end users. NEMA published our article in the June 2014 edition of its electro-industry magazine. Read on below to chew on the idea. Maybe someday this is how everyone will approach their energy needs and the utility doomsayers will have to sit back and smile as the utility business continues to thrive and even grow as the overall energy needs for end users continues to grow over time.


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This is definitely a different article and subject area than my regular stories on Microgrids, renewable energy, and the federal government’s energy-related activities.  However, after reading it, many will walk away thinking MicroGrid solutions are more viable than ever . . .  And, people that know me know that I’m not a “chicken little” and I regularly complain about some very notable cyber security mouthpieces that identify and teach where and how to exploit vulnerabilities, but offer little or nothing in the way of solutions.  So, I enlisted my friend and fellow zoomie graduate, Andy Bochman from Bochman Advisors, to help with content, fact-checking, and editing support.  Here’s some background on why we felt compelled to do some research, make some phone calls, and write this story.

One of my co-workers, Kevin Brown, works for a BUNCH of utility companies doing penetration testing on a variety of devices.  Sometime last year, Kevin and I talked about Microsoft’s decision to end support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014.  We talked about potential impact to banks and utilities – and the effect it might have on U.S. and world economies if those systems were compromised.  This long-telegraphed move by Microsoft (first announced in 2007) has profound implications for multiple critical infrastructure industries upon which entire economies are based.  Here in the U.S., many electric utility field devices use Windows XP embedded to provide processing, communication, and intelligence to transmission and distribution networks. These devices have served very useful lives, providing rugged, upgradeable, patchable environments that can be kept current and which help manage electricity service to hundreds of millions of consumers.

For Microsoft, it makes financial sense to stop supporting an operating system that is well over a decade old – released in 2001. For utility and banking systems, it is a shot across the bow, a visceral reminder of their dependency on 3rd party technologies, and an event that has profound financial implications for their organizations.  For utilities that normally have field equipment life expectancies of 20+ years, it reinforces the new reality of operating in a “smart grid” where shorter technology lifecycles defy the “business as usual” paradigm utilities and regulators previously operated under. Their urgent task now: develop a strategy and budget CAPEX resources to address the end-of-life cyber security risks exposed by this decision.

It is easy to understand utilities’ and device manufacturers’ reluctance to move to a new operating system.  XP was solid.  Everything worked nicely and vulnerabilities were addressed with Microsoft patches, which in most cases could be applied over the network as needed.  As a software developer myself for the first 15 years of my career and a complete Microsoft groupie junkie, Windows XP coupled with VB4 and Visual C++ provided a truly powerful, programmer-friendly, and stable environment for software development teams.  Microsoft followed that up with Windows Vista, Windows 7, and now Windows 8, all of which many programmers would argue were steps backward from the old reliable Windows XP.  In the meantime, the mobile world exploded with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems.  And the giant slept.  Microsoft lost its groupie following of programmers and spent enormous amounts of time patching their OS’s against ever-increasing and ever-more-ingenious attacks from cyber punks.

Microsoft Operating System RetirementsIn September 2007, Microsoft announced their decision to end support of XP.  Vista had just been released to a tepid public response and patch after patch after patch.  Confidence in Vista and subsequent operating systems has never been as strong as it was in XP – many companies and government agencies still use XP to this day and are in the same situation as utilities and banks, either transitioning to Windows 7 or leaping across operating system versions to Windows 8.

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By Stuart McCafferty

The concept of developing local MicroGrids to support organizational missions is a current topic of interest in Board rooms, campuses, utilities, and city councils. The truth is that MicroGrids are not cheap, require a lot of careful design, require ongoing operations and maintenance expenditures, and are not always the optimal solution. In a previous article, I discussed the “the 6 things to consider” when developing a MicroGrid, and provided some practical questions to answer before investing a lot of time and money. Any major power investment like a MicroGrid should not only support the organizational objectives, but it should also provide benefits to the power consumers – the “customers”. This article does not represent an exhaustive list, but instead provides some of the more common and provocative customer benefits when considering a MicroGrid solution for your organization.

Price stability

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that the average price of electricity for residential consumers is 12.4 cents/kwh in 2014. Even though energy usage statistics continue to decline due to energy efficiency standards and more efficient lighting and appliances, the cost of electricity to end users continues to climb steadily. EIA further predicts that US electricity prices will rise 2% each year for the next few years. This may not seem like much, but at this pace, a consumer that is paying $500 per month today will be paying $609.61 in just 10 years.
The more relevant risk factor, however, is that no one really knows what the actual cost of electricity will be in 5 years, let alone 10. There are a lot of variables that control the cost of electricity – weather, natural or man-made disasters, electricity demand, fuel costs, infrastructure upgrades, and policy decisions. Any one of these could have non-trivial effects on the local retail cost of electricity – higher or lower.
MicroGrids provide a mechanism for cost guarantees over long periods of time – typically 20 years. This is normally accomplished through Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), which are legal contracts between the buyer (the customer – or the customer’s electricity supplier) and the seller (the electricity generator). These contracts not only define the electricity price over the period of performance, but usually also include power delivery performance minimums such as reliability and power quality with financial penalties for failing to meet those metrics. More about reliability and PQ later.

Power Quality

Think of companies like Intel, Apple, Tesla, and Caterpillar. To them, power quality is immensely important to their manufacturing and assembly line processes. Fluctuations in power quality can have profound and costly effects on productivity, end products, and digital production machinery. Of course, power quality is something that most customers take for granted. But even short voltage sags or spikes can affect the productivity and quality of life for any business or residential customer.

MicroGrid controllers monitor the power quality and can provide command and control authority to dispatch generation assets as appropriate to maintain the quality of power within a set range. They can also participate in the ancillary market to provide power quality services beyond the MicroGrid territory and provide additional societal and economic benefits.

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By Stuart McCafferty

For the past several years the military has been installing renewable energy assets, primarily solar, to reduce its dependency on traditional generation sources. Federal mandates have accelerated the pace that DoD installations have added solar and wind plants in a race to be compliant. The Energy Initiative Task Force (EITF) is the Army’s responsible organization for identifying, prioritizing, and coordinating large-scale renewable energy of 10 MW and greater. The Civil Engineering Center leads the renewable energy program for the Air Force, performing similar roles to the Army’s EITF. The Navy has established Task Force Energy which is responsible for the overall energy strategy both onshore and at sea, and is supported by the tactical Navy Energy Coordination Office (NECO) responsible for implementing the strategy. Bottom line, there’s a lot going on and the US military is taking energy very seriously.

Unless you have been Rip Van Winkle for the past 3 years, you couldn’t have missed all the budgeting issues with sequestration, budget reductions, and partisan Congressional indecision. The military has had to get pretty creative in how it funds these “non-mission-critical” projects. In fact, the President’s 2014 Research and Development budget proposed a $4.6B budget decrease from 2012 and only $2.1B shared across numerous “priorities,” only one of which is “more efficient energy.” The DoD has effectively been given an “unfunded mandate” and is rapidly mastering its renewable energy programs. Each of the above-mentioned DoD energy centers of excellence have become truly expert in identifying, prioritizing, planning, and, in particular, “using other people’s money” to develop renewable energy projects on military installations. They are learning lessons, collaborating with each another, talking and listening to industry, establishing common processes, and “quick-timing it” towards the DoD’s mandate of 25% renewable energy usage by 2025.

Now that that is all settled, take cover for incoming! Flying in over the horizon like an A-10 Warthog are the new buzzwords – “Net Zero” and “Energy Surety”. Net Zero (or Netzero if you prefer) is the ability to produce as much energy as you use over a one year period. So a Net Zero Energy military installation is pretty self-explanatory. Energy Surety means that the power system is resilient, resistive, and reactive to ensure “the mission” can be maintained during power loss or power quality events.

Both of those subjects deserve another couple of articles in themselves, but each will have profound implications for energy-focused DoD organizations. Net Zero and Energy Surety cannot be achieved by simply installing renewable energy assets. Renewables MIGHT be part of the solution, but now we are talking about “systems of systems” – command and control, storage, traditional backup generation, energy conservation, renewable energy, grid-connected vs islanded, market participation, etc., etc. Now we are talking about Microgrids or (remember you heard it here first) MilGrids.

MilGrid Conceptual Architecture Example (courtesy Sandia National Laboratories)
MilGrid Conceptual Architecture Example (courtesy Sandia National Laboratories)
The military’s energy innovation organizations will be right in the center of this change and will need to continue to evolve their processes to address the evolving paradigm. In fact, it is already happening as the various services begin to dip their toes in the water. A great example of the military’s sortie into MilGrid implementations is the USMC Miramar Air Station just north of San Diego. With Energy Surety, security, and mission sustainment as the primary goals, the Marines have tapped into the Miramar Landfill and are using methane gas, solar panels, and other generation resources to power a portion of the base. With help from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Miramar MilGrid is a work in progress and will yield lessons-learned and processes that will help all the service branches get smarter and achieve more efficient and structured approaches to future MilGrid development.

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