How can the world’s energy systems be improved to withstand the growing number of superstorms plaquing power infrastructure? The question of resiliency is one being asked more and more by governments, utilities and academics.
Austin-based Ideal Power was formed nine years ago as a small start-up with 9 people. Since then the success of its power conversion technology has seen headcount more than double. Director of Applications Engineering John Merritt spoke to Decentralized Energy about the learning process the company continues to follow in enabling more effective use of distributed energy resources and a better energy system.
“Our customer base is typically system integrators that bundle our power converters with control software and batteries along with the balance of system (BoS) components necessary to optimize and manage power consumption in commercial settings.”
“In California there is a huge installed base of solar. Unfortunately, many buildings reach their peak power consumption during late afternoon or early evening hours when the solar resource cannot offset peak demand. California has a very expensive rate structure for peak power use, that you generally don’t encounter elsewhere the US. As a result, there is a huge opportunity in California for peak demand solutions, and Ideal has sold several hundred converters to integration partners to address this market need.”
In mid-2017 Ideal Power introduced a new power converter family, much different than their legacy products, which were not microgrid capable, and could not be upgraded to support smart inverter standards. These older products were primarily used for offsetting peak demand in buildings, and were retired in 2017, after the new product introduction.
“The new products are capable of both following the grid, as well as forming a microgrid and they are capable of moving between those two modes of operation in a relatively seamless manner,” says Merritt. “We are selling those products to both new as well as our existing base of integration partners in markets like California, enabling them to deliver a broader value chain to their end customers: primarily backup power when the grid goes down.”
Customers can use the battery resource in the building for critical load support and the new product is multi-port, therefore capable of integrating solar and storage in one compact box. These converters are the company’s main focus right now, and can be used in grid-tied storage applications, solar + storage microgrids, and even blends of both, delivering backup power in a commercial setting.
“Our systems target three-phase power applications with a nameplate rating of 30 kW. Integrators can parallel up to 10 of these systems for commercial applications, so Ideal’s products are generally too small for utility-scale power, and too large for residential-scale power. We focus on small to medium commercial power applications in North America, but intend to enter international markets later in 2018, or early 2019.”
An Ideal Power solar + storage microgrid project at a commercial facility in Saint Croix, US Virgin Islands was impacted by Hurricane Maria and has provided great insight into what works and what doesn’t in real-world situations. It’s been a valuable experience in the company’s learning curve and has greatly influenced Ideal’s technology and product development strategy.
That microgrid has an AC nameplate of 180 kW and was installed in Q2 of 2017. It features 300 kW of solar PV on the roof, a 300 kWh advanced lead-acid battery, and three 125 kW Caterpillar diesel generators. Prior to the solar and battery installation, the building was powered solely by the generators.
The purpose of the project was to offset fuel use from the diesels as they were running 24/7. The building was a high-profile entertainment facility but was never connected to the grid due to high grid interconnection costs along with high utility rates.
“We completed this microgrid last summer, but very soon afterwards, hurricane Maria ripped all the solar panels off the roof, while also damaging other building systems. The solar panels have been recently replaced, and we are now re-commissioning the system.”
The company and it’s integration partners have adjusted their design approaches based on experiences like St Croix.
“It’s great to be working with integration partners that have mastered the complex system controls required to get the gensets and Ideal’s converters well integrated and speaking to one another. Although we’ve only completed a handful of these complex systems, we’re finding that modular controls and modular equipment design are key to accelerating the pace of hybrid microgrid deployment and commissioning.”
Ideal Power has since completed another microgrid project outside of New York City, using nine converters in a 270 kW nameplate operation paired with 400 kWh’s of battery capacity and 300 kW of PV. Two natural 100kW gas gensets on the site provide backup power as necessary when loads are high, and the solar resource is compromised due to cloud cover and/or severe weather.
“These are the kinds of projects we are focusing on in the hybrid microgrid space. Our integration partners like our modular 30kW platform: it’s small and compact, so delivery and setup does not require a forklift or any special materials handling equipment, lowering installed costs. Our converters mount on a wall and are not much bigger than a 30 kW PV string inverter, making the compact form factor is a key selling feature for Ideal.”
These early projects did have additional challenges, including limited insight with regards to building load, and no means of load curtailment or load shedding during periods when batteries were discharged, requiring higher genset runtimes to keep the batteries topped up. Load management is a new capability being considered for future projects by Ideal’s integration partners.
New projects are benefiting from the company’s experience, including an IT services company in Plano, Texas, which has 10 Ideal Power systems installed in two different buildings on a corporate campus. The purpose of those power converters is to export solar power to the grid 99 percent of the time: the batteries simply provide backup power when the grid goes down, and are recharged in real-time by the rooftop solar.
“Five school campuses in Salinas California have a similar backup power strategy, to ensure that an entire full school day can be completed during grid outages, rather than sending students home. Both the Salinas and the Plano site suffer from overworked and stressed distribution feeders, resulting in higher than normal grid-outage events.”
There are other obstacles that need to be overcome to further accelerate microgrid adoption, Merritt says.
“These are not the kind of systems that a traditional solar installer can get their arms around in short order. The integration of solar, energy storage and backup generators is a complex task with many variables to consider. Our converters have flexible modes of operation built in, which does simplify system design, but controls integration experience remains key. As a result, we are seeking additional partners with microgrid design experience. ”
Then there is the matter of finance, which came to the fore most recently when the company was pursuing projects in storm-devastated Puerto Rico. It’s something they are keen to address in developing its ability to address international projects.
“We have partners on the ground there but, unfortunately, those partners don’t have the means to fund projects on the island just yet. Broadening our network of partners, to include those with sources of project funding is a key goal for ideal.”
In terms of the international dimension, Merritt already sees a path in terms of the development of microgrids in developing countries. One of the company’s partners, a US-based electrical co-op is developing a modular 60kW plug and play microgrid to power villages in rural Nigeria.
As the world becomes more aware of the importance of resiliency, and environmentally sound operation of that resiliency, Ideal Power looks in an ideal place to contribute.