Smart grid conceptual abstract (Photo by Shutterstock)
Smart grid conceptual abstract (Photo by Shutterstock)
" “In New York, California and many other states, strong and thoughtful regulators are starting to challenge the legacy utility business model and warning those companies to evolve or die.” "
In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy left a trail of devastation across the Northeast, killing 157 people, destroying thousands of homes and knocking out power to millions of customers. But the campus of Princeton University only lost power for 20 minutes before a powerful natural gas turbine fired up, producing enough heat and electricity for 12,000 people, according to the university. Soon, police, firefighters and paramedics set up a staging area on campus for emergency relief operations and the university opened a hospitality center for storm-weary residents to charge their phones and use the wireless Internet connection.

“For a day and a half, we had to generate everything the campus needed,” said Ted Borer, Princeton’s energy plant manager, in an interview posted on the university’s website. “We didn’t know about Hurricane Sandy 20 years ago [when the microgrid was first established], but we knew there are things that make the [utility-company] grid unreliable.… Now, we can run the campus as an electric island in times of crisis.”

Princeton is one of the few places in the nation with a microgrid — a localized grouping of on-site electricity generators that is capable of operating in conjunction with the traditional electric grid or disconnecting from it and running autonomously as an electrical island. Microgrid operators can actually adjust how much power it takes in from the main grid depending on how much electricity prices fluctuate throughout the day. When the demand for power on campus is high or grid power is cheap, it can draw electricity from the main grid. But when campus demand is low and its solar panels are producing more electricity, it can sell power back to the grid. Although microgrids are relatively rare, they’ve been around a while, said Travis Wood, the vice president of Franklin Electric subsidiary Grid Solutions in Saco, at a July 20 presentation at Southern Maine Community College in Brunswick sponsored by the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech).

“Everyone talks about [microgrids] as if it’s a new concept,” said Wood. “It’s been around for ages, but from a commercial perspective I believe it’s still in its infancy stage and that’s evident by who the early adopters are.”

These days, microgrids are generally smaller-scale projects confined to university campuses, research facilities and military installations. But with improvements in smartgrid technology and the cost of distributed energy resources (DER) like solar panels, demand-response systems, smart appliances and battery storage devices plummeting, microgrids are starting to look like the wave of the future. Although renewable energy provided only 17 percent of electrical generation nationally in 2016, about two-thirds of the new generators installed in 2016 were powered by renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).

“Between the demand growth, replacement power for [existing power plant] retirements and decarbonization efforts, they’re anticipating $17 trillion is going to be invested in the grid in the next 20 years,” said Wood. “And while renewable energy is still a small part of the energy mix, this is where all of the investment is.”

And given the intermittancy of wind and solar, the grids of the future will need to be smarter and more efficient at using and storing that energy. Proponents of microgrids argue that the technology allows for better energy efficiency, improved grid reliability, and the ability to deploy smaller on-site “behind the grid” generators with a cleaner environmental footprint. They also reduce the need to build more expensive transmission lines from the main grid to meet high electricity demand during a few peak hours a year when summer visitors flock to Maine and air conditioners are running full blast.

The Brunswick Landing Microgrid

Currently, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA), a quasi-municipal corporation, is also in the process of building a microgrid at Brunswick Landing, with hopes of attracting tech innovators to the the former Naval air base. Since MRRA took over the 2,100-acre facility in 2011, 125 customers — including the Swedish medical device maker Mölnlycke Health Care, outsourcing company SaviLinx, the Brunswick Executive Airport  and a branch of Southern Maine Community College — have taken up residence there. One of the MRRA’s primary aims is to establish a renewable energy center on campus, explained public works and utilities manager Tom Brubaker at the E2Tech event on July 20. And part of that vision, he said, is to convert the site’s existing electrical distribution system into an intelligent microgrid.

“We want our grid to be reliable and resilient. Businesses today that are technology dependent expect that distributed generation on-site,” said Brubaker. “We think we can draw down their electricity costs. A  smarter grid here will give us the ability to … lower our capacity charges, lower our demand charges and drive down energy costs. And at the end of the day, when we’re fully up and running as a smart grid or intelligent grid, companies will be able to plug their technology into our grid and test them.”

Currently, MRRA operates the utility system on the site similarly to the way a mobile home park does, purchasing electricity from local providers — in this case wind power from Constellation NewEnergy — and distributing it to tenants and businesses on the property at the same voltage. Brunswick Landing also has a 1-megawatt anaerobic digester that runs on methane gas generated by municipal sewer sludge and plans to launch a 1.5-megawatt solar array this year. MRRA has also brought in the Portland applied-science engineering firm Introspective Systems LLC to design its smart-grid architecture to enable the deployment of distributed power sources throughout the system, such as energy storage, demand-response systems, smart appliances, solar panels and other power sources.


“There’s not a lot of systems [like Brunswick Landing], other than college campuses, but they don’t really bill [customers] because they have one meter and pay for all of the power,” said Introspective Systems CEO Kay Aikin at the E2Tech event. “There’s not a lot of situations like MRRA in the country.”

Aikin said her company is working on a plan to install artificial intelligence throughout MRRA’s grid to make energy management decisions in real time. She said the company uses similar technology in its work with MIT on managing multiple flying drones at a time as well as several self-driving cars navigating in traffic to avoid accidents. The company envisions an interconnected microgrid infrastructure close to the end-use power customers rather than at power plants or along transmission lines and equipped with devices that allow power systems to ramp up or ramp down based on pricing signals.

“So a battery may say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a full-up charge. For the next two hours, I’m going to put power onto the grid that will lower the demand charges from CMP,’ ” said Aikin. “At the same time, the air conditioner down in SaviLinx may say, ‘You know it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, people are going to start to go home. I can let the set point go from 72-74 and nobody’s really going to notice.’ ”

She said it will likely take about two years to complete the simulation work before the company is ready to implement the technology at Brunswick Landing.

“Artificial intelligence is very emergent, and the problem we have is we don’t know how it will work,” she said, adding later, “We don’t have to be afraid of the Terminator. The joke around the office is that Arnold Schwarzenegger will break through the wall someday and probably try to kill us because we designed something that went rogue.”

But all presentators at the event agreed that lawmakers and regulators need to establish a regulatory framework to allow smart microgrid technology to flourish.

“It’s not a technology problem. We can do the technology,” said Aikin. “It’s going to be allowing real-time pricing…. The legislators have to get a handle on this and realize that in order to have the choices for consumers, we’re going to have to have more real-time pricing, responsive pricing and also locational pricing.”

She added that the price of power should really depend on its location and the particular needs of an area, as the price might be higher or lower based on what is on the grid. She argued that the current standard electric rates are not incentivizing innovation.

“This is going to allow new cost recovery, and I can see a lot of people in the energy industry are going to have to change their business model,” she said. “They’re going to have a lot of new business models.”

Utilities & Innovators Face Off

And certainly this new decentralized energy model does present a threat to the more centralized, regulated monopoly utilities like Central Maine Power and Emera Maine. While investor-owned utilities earn their revenue from building and managing wires, poles, transformers and transmission lines, microgrids decrease the need to transmit power from far away power plants. Edison Electric, a national association of all of the investor-owned utilities, has identified these technological advancements along with innovations in distributed energy as “disruption challenges” that present financial risks to its members. At the same time, utilities have openly embraced distributed energy resources as long as they can control and profit off of them.

Brian Conroy, director of Network Projects & Initiatives at CMP’s parent company Avangrid, told the E2Tech audience that the company is currently working with the state of New York to develop standards for the grid of the future.

“Distributed resources are not a problem. They’re a solution,” said Conroy. “But they’ve got to be integrated into the system. So my dream is that they provide and we end up developing a regulatory market where they’re valued and included in optimizing the grid. They can make it more effective, more resilient and more efficient.”

Both Wood of Franklin Electric and Aikin agreed that there will still be room for utilities like CMP and the regional grid operator ISO-New England in the future, but that the electrical landscape will be more decentralized. Wood said his company is working out in California, where utilities are fighting the introduction of distributed energy resources (DERs).

“They’re able to generate a profit with retros, new transformers, wires and substations, but when adopting DERs, they’re actually losing money because customers are purchasing less electricity from them,” he said.

He noted that the California Public Utilities Commission is working on a pilot project to incentivize utilities with rebates to adopt DERs like microgrid projects.

However, Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of solar company ReVision Energy, says he has “no reason to believe that clunky, conservative, slow CMP” will be better at aggregating and dispatching distributed on-site storage than an Amazon, Google or other innovative tech company. He noted that although the Portland company GridSolar has saved the state millions of dollars by deploying distributed energy projects on the Boothbay peninsula as an alternative to building an expensive transmission line to meet summer peak demand, CMP worked hard to defeat a proposal by GridSolar to coordinate non-transmission alternative energy projects across the state.

“I believe the utilities are very clearly on the wrong side of history and in spite of their significant regulatory and legislative might, they are only delaying the inevitable,” he said. “In New York, California and many other states, strong and thoughtful regulators are starting to challenge the legacy utility business model and warning those companies to evolve or die. In Maine, where CMP has taken advantage of weak regulators appointed by their lapdog of a governor, they have won some short-term battles. But the arc of the universe is long and they are, at the end of the day, on the wrong side of history.”