Microgrids offer a way to add resilience to existing energy infrastructure or build entirely new, independent supply systems to serve remote locations. They also represent a potentially huge IoT opportunity, writes Jessica Twentyman.

Last year’s Hurricanes Harvey and Irma provided salutary lessons to a number of US municipalities on the importance of being able to deliver resilient power to critical facilities, even in the most extreme weather conditions.

In the City of Milford, Connecticut, however, a handful of local institutions will no longer need to worry when a big storm is headed their way. Milford’s City Hall and the Parsons Government Center, the home of various local government agencies, are to be connected up to a microgrid, along with the local middle school, senior centre, and the River Park Elderly Apartments. All are deemed ‘critical facilities’ and several of them are made available to Milford residents as emergency shelters when power outages occur.

A microgrid is a small, local energy grid with control capabilities that enable it to operate independently of a traditional utility grid. It tends to be highly instrumented, with sensors that enable it to be remotely controlled and managed; will often incorporate renewable energy sources; and generally includes battery storage, too. In other words, microgrids are a big IoT opportunity, as they’re comprised of equipment that requires sensors, connectivity and analytics to perform at its best.

In the case of Milford, Connecticut, the microgrid will be designed by energy management and automation giant Schneider Electric in a deal worth $4.5 million, to operate during grid outages and provide the town with more cost-efficient and sustainable energy. It will be solar-ready, so that solar PV panels may be added in future, and will use battery energy storage system to reduce peak power consumption from the local energy grid.

Read more: GE’s Maher Chebbo on the journey to a digitally transformed energy sector

A booming energy-sector IoT trend

But the town of Milford won’t be unusual in benefiting from microgrid technology – far from it. This is a booming IoT trend in the energy sector as organizations look to microgrids to build higher reliability at potentially lower cost into smart grids or to serve previously unserved regions. And it’s not just city authorities that are interested, but also university campuses, military bases, and remote communities. Some microgrids are tied to the wider grid, some operate entirely independently at all times.

In fact, a new report from Navigant Research identifies 1,869 microgrid projects – both grid-tied and remote – that are in the proposed, planning or deployment stages across six geographies worldwide. Together, they represent almost 21 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. By way of comparison, the total energy generating capacity of Great Britain is around 75.3 GW, according to Ofgem.

In particular, Navigant’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker 4Q2017 identifies 60 new projects since the preceding report (in 2Q2017) and notes a big boost in the Middle East & Africa region as a result of the 2.2 GW Saudi Aramco project in Shaybah, Saudi Arabia. This is a massive microgrid cluster being developed to serve a gas-oil separation plant project.

Asia Pacific and North America still account for almost three-quarters of all microgrid capacity in the Tracker, according to Navigant Research analyst Adam Wilson, but he adds that “the major shift in this update is the Middle East & Africa jumping to third place among all regions with more than 3 GW of total capacity.” While Asia-Pacific has the most microgrid generation capacity, says the report, North America leads in terms of microgrids.

Europe showed an unusual drop in capacity in the update, with a total of 1.8 GW, but Wilson puts this down to a number of project updates where totals were adjusted downward to correctly represent their current status.

Still, microgrid growth looks set to continue – and that’s good news for Schneider Electric, along with other companies supplying microgrid equipment and technology. These include industrial giant such as GE, ABB and Siemens, along with lesser-known names and start-ups. And the audience of interested parties for new ways to deliver energy to critical buildings and projects looks set to grow, too – from town hall policymakers to construction bosses on far-flung desert building sites.

Coming soon: Our Internet of Energy event will be taking place in Berlin, Germany on 6 & 7 March 2018. Attendees will hear how companies in this sector are harnessing the power of IoT to transform distributed energy resources. 

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