IoT microgrids could hold key to energy resilience

IoT microgrids could hold key to energy resilience

Microgrids are helping communities in Puerto Rico get back on their feet – but smart systems and ‘energy clouds’ might also contribute to greater resilience in the wake of future extreme weather episodes. Jessica Twentyman reports.

It is five months since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, yet around one-third of the US territory’s residents – some 900,000 people – are still living without electricity.

But for pupils at S.U. Matrullas, a school located in the remote town of Orocovis in the island’s Central Mountain Range, it’s lessons as normal. That’s thanks to the donation of two smart energy-storage systems from German residential battery company, Sonnen. These are paired with a 15 kilowatt rooftop solar system provided by local renewable energy specialist, Pura Energia.

Together, these pieces of equipment form a microgrid that will provide enough energy to keep the school open and supplied with clean, renewable energy – rather than it having to rely on a noisy and far less environmentally friendly gas-fuelled generator.

A microgrid is a small local energy grid with control capabilities, based on connected sensors and other IoT technologies that enable it to operate independently of traditional grids.

The school has been completely off the main supply grids since the hurricane struck in September 2017, and was not expecting to be reconnected for many months to come. Now, school officials reckon they won’t need to reconnect with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), even once the main power supply is restored to the area.

Microgrids post-hurricane recovery and energy resilience
The solar array from Pura Energia installed at S.U. Matrullas school in Puerto Rico as part of a microgrid.

Read more: Analysis: 2018 looks set to see a surge in microgrids

More than just recovery

S.U. Matrullus is the site of the ninth and tenth microgrid systems that Sonnen and Pura Energia have installed on the island since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico. Others have been installed at relief centres, food distribution centres, and community laundromats, supporting households in areas where water has been contaminated by the Leptospirosis bacteria.

According to Adam Gentner, Sonnen’s director of business development in Latin America, “These microgrids effectively form the blueprint for more than just recovery, but also for preparation for islands and regions around the world that are susceptible to natural disasters and power outages.”

This is an important point: microgrids have a potentially huge role to play, not just in recovery, but also in ongoing energy resilience. And, as seen at S.U. Matrullas, microgrids often incorporate renewable energy sources, and include battery storage, too.

As previously discussed on Internet of Business, microgrids are a huge IoT opportunity, as they’re comprised of equipment that requires sensors, connectivity, and analytics to perform at its best. The smart battery systems from Sonnen, for example, rely on a self-learning algorithm to decide when to charge and discharge the battery, based on data it processes on energy usage patterns, photovoltaic output, weather predictions, and grid tariff rates.

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

Improving island life

There is a huge opportunity for microgrids and smart systems on the storm-ravaged islands of the Caribbean, which last year had to deal with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in swift succession. Most of these islands operate an energy infrastructure based on one large generator powered by imported fossil fuels, with power transported along above-ground cables. In other words, it’s unnecessarily dirty, costly – and vulnerable.

It follows that sustainable alternatives, such as wind and solar power, could do much to increase resiliency – although it’s worth noting that several solar farms on these islands did get trashed during these storms, so a future based on solar-plus-batteries may not be enough.

But a recent report on Puerto Rico’s energy future seems to agree that microgrids have a big role to play. Prepared by more than a dozen organisations, including the island’s power authority PREPA, it calls for a decade-long plan of improvement programmes that is likely to cost somewhere in the region of $17 billion.

In particular, it proposes a two-pronged approach to microgrid adoption. First, critical centres vital to post-storm recovery – such as hospital, police and fire stations, emergency shelters, air and sea ports, and water treatment plants – should operate in isolation as microgrids, using technologies such as combined heat and power systems, rooftop solar, battery storage, and smart energy management systems.

Second, remote communities should have their own microgrids that enable them to operate independently – and remain disconnected – from the larger grid.

Read more: Chirp and EDF Energy team up on power station connectivity project

A resilient and renewables-based future?

One of the contributors to the Puerto Rico report was Navigant Research, which specialises in energy market analysis. It follows microgrids closely, and last week released a report estimating that culmulative spending on microgrid-enabling technologies will reach almost $112 billion by 2026.

Navigant analyst Peter Asmus says, “Microgrids represent a key component of an emerging ‘energy cloud’ focused on resilience and renewable energy integration. Biomass, combined heat and power, diesel, fuel cells, hydroelectric, solar PV, and wind represent the lion’s share of potential revenue for microgrid implementation spending, and serve as the backbone of the microgrid value proposition: maximising the value of onsite power generation.”

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For the 900,000 Puerto Ricans still living without power, resilience can’t come quick enough. The use of renewables, meanwhile, would mean greater self-reliance when it comes to energy generation, allowing them to use the island’s own resources to generate the power its people need.

Smart, connected, distributed energy networks are not just a stopgap solution while traditional infrastructures are being repaired; they can be a radical, better alternative to legacy systems.

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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