The Blue Lake Rancheria Native American reservation’s microgrid went live at the end of April. Decentralized Energy spoke with Siemens Microgrid Director for Siemens Energy Management’s Clark Wiedetz about why small-scale projects such as Blue Lake can eventually have a greater significance.
Clark Wiedetz was on his way to the celebratory opening of the Blue Lake microgrid two weeks ago when he got waylaid by one of the frequent landslides that blight the area. After an extended detour and a flat tyre, he eventually reached his destination. But diesel supplies were down for the resort itself, as a result of the incident, emphasising the valuable role of the newly installed mini network.
Resiliency is a top priority for the resort’s owners – what Widetz refers to as ‘the importance of islanding’.
“They have diesel generation so they get deliveries to power that engine once a week. Just recently they had a number of landslides on the 101, the main thoroughfare up to Rancheria and Humboldt County. So, that weekly delivery was only 10 per cent of their usual diesel supply. Now they have storage so they’re okay but it’s an example of why they need that resilience.”
Although grid connected to PG&E the resort uses multiple fuel sources depending on load.
The software provided is able to accurately predict power needs and dynamically manage generation and distribution through integrated weather data, load forecasting, and load-shed scenarios. In grid-connected mode, the software will help the Tribe reduce peak loads and conduct other energy management optimization to help relieve pressures on the larger grid. In cases of emergency when the larger grid is down, the system will operate in islanded mode.
“It’s important for them as they have a casino that has to be up and running 247 – they also have an emergency Red Cross shelter for the county – mandatory to be available all the time.”
Siemens worked with Idaho National Laboratories at the commencement of the project, running the preliminary analysis to evaluate the best combination of technologies to meet the owner’s objectives – those being the ability to island for a period of time, the reduction of carbon footprint and cost reduction.
“We found the combination of 0.5 MW of solar, battery storage, biomass fuel cell on-site and the existing 1 MW diesel generator, as it doesn’t make sense to leave out assets already present, to be the right mix. We then rolled up the automation system so they could directly control the needs of each of the buildings we touch.”
Wiedetz sees the area as being an ideal spot to demonstrate the advantages of what a microgrid can do.
“It makes sense in many areas that are somewhat rural – Humboldt county is fairly large and has a university, a substantial business presence and population. It’s a no-brainer for these areas, and for the likes of federal bases – they must have that resiliency for security purposes. Hospitals have to be up and running all the time. Instead of adding more and more backup generation for expansion wouldn’t it make sense to add in automation and controls and diversify your load so you’re not always having to have total redundancy with your generation. There’s an economic advantage to the microgrid and having diversity in your fuel. Economic advantages, reliability advantages and environmental advantages – there are lots of drivers.”
Microgrids may be gaining more and more credibility in the minds of governments and industries but, according to Wiedetz, this doesn’t mean surpassing or retiring the greater grid in the future.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be secondary – I’m going to call it complementary- look at it from a grid integration standpoint.”
“All you have to do is look at the performance of solar in the US over the last ten years. In 2006, we had 100 MW in the US- now it’s in the region of 40 GW and continuing to grow at around 30 per cent year on year.”
“But you don’t want to just add solar assets and have less metering – there’s an economic benefit so let’s add this to the grid and benefit the utility, allowing the utility to load shed or load ship- especially with the addition of battery storage.”
“That’s the direction I see distributed generation going- it will become integrated with the grid –the end users want it, whether commercial, industrial, higher education, healthcare. The markets are there and the utilities are starting to see that as well.”
Siemens offerings in the microgrid space are growing. Wiedetz says the company’s equipment and services are frequently good match ups in terms of distributed generation, whether turbines, gensets, combined heat and power choices, renewable power sources or battery storage, ‘all of which can comprise a microgrid.’
In the US EPA regulations have concentrated minds in terms of diversifying power mixes and Siemens control software allows for adaptability to the myriad technologies found across an ever-growing range of menus.
Recent positive client experiences include a project for Duke Energy and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) called INTEGRATE, an initiative developed to resolve the current limitations utilities face when integrating renewable energy sources into the grid.
A lack of common standards and the variable nature of these renewable sources had previously led to difficulties in the communication and interoperation of renewables within the complex, multi-vendor operating systems used by utilities. Project INTEGRATE and the Siemens and OMNETRIC Group technologies allowed utilities to integrate these systems more successfully. The ability to integrate with legacy systems is also attractive to the typical utility.
“They were happy we were involved because we’re taking software controls they are already familiar with and adapting them now to control the microgrid aspect. They like that as it’s not a new software with new bugs. This is important as all the large utilities are risk adverse – it’s part of their DNA.”
The last eight years have never been as challenging for the traditional utility, and the proliferation of renewables and distributed generation might have been seen as contributing to the pressure, but perception is changing.
“Distributed generation that fits with residential homes, industrial customers and federal bases has gone up considerably. If I’m a big utility with distributed generation in my service territory I can’t fight it because it’s out there now.”
“You also have combined heat and power, which has been dribbling out there for 30 years as well so there’s no sense in fighting it so the question is what do I do with it?”
“How do I control it and maximise my return and put it into my business model? That’s what they are figuring out, that’s why they are running pilots, and smaller microgrid projects now to see what is there we don’t know and they don’t know and how do we take advantage of this?”
The microgrid powering critical infrastructure saves the Blue Lake resort $200,000 per year, and involves the reduction of 150 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.
By the middle of next year, the project may serve as a compelling case study, catching the eye of many interested parties. It may also ease the way in terms of appealing to diverse regulatory regimes.
“That’s one of the bigger challenges- the regulatory challenge,” says Wiedetz. “It’s kind of all over the place and we have different types of equipment we provide so it’s a difficult area for us.”
“When we get together as an industry entity and discuss what are the biggest obstacles we face with decentralized energy and microgrids, the twin answers are regulatory and financing – there’s no simple answer.”
“With the regulatory perspective, it’s somewhat local which makes it very difficult – there’s different drivers with different regions and whatever macros you want to make this thing, it’s a challenge.”
The economies and efficiencies being won through microgrid technology are, however, hitting home.
“That’s why we have projects like Blue Lake. I know its small, only a megawatt or two, but the demonstration and the information we garner and publish on Blue Lake over the next 12 months will help.”
“We just have to get more of them out there and demonstrate the economic, resiliency and environmental benefits- because if those three tie together at the 2 MW scale then getting them to 20 or 100 or 200 MW becomes possible and people start looking at it a lot harder and will invest in it. Remember that second obstacle is financing our investments.”