Microgrid Kept Power On Even as the California Wildfires Caused Outages

By Lisa Cohn

When the islanded microgrid at Stone Edge Farm near Sonoma, Calif., kept operating for 10 days in spite of the fires that caused outages nearby, the operators seized the opportunity to learn as much as possible from the surprises they encountered.

islanded microgrid

California National Guard photo, Oct. 12, 2017.

The first surprise, of course, were the fires that struck suddenly, stoked by high winds and dry conditions. While the fires didn’t burn the farm’s property, they came within about five miles.

“At 5 am I got a phone call from an employee who couldn’t get into work because everything was burning,” said Craig Wooster, general contractor for the microgrid project. “I reached for the light and there was no light at my place, which instantly told me we needed to get the microgrid into island mode.”

His son and an intern working at Stone Edge Farm put the microgrid in island mode to ensure the farm’s irrigation system continued operating in case the power at the farm went out. The microgrid powers pumps that run water from wells, explained Wooster.

The microgrid, which includes a mix of solar, eight different types of batteries, 10 different kinds of inverters, and a natural gas microturbine, operated even though the power went out and officials called for evacuations. In fact, after being evacuated, Wooster and his associates operated the islanded microgrid remotely—for the first time.

 Islanded microgrid faced tests in fire — and succeeded

Operating in island mode put to the test a “distributed optimizer” called Heila, created by the team and others specifically for the microgrid.

“When I say we operated the microgrid remotely, what we basically did was push an ‘on’ or ‘off’ button and the system is designed to operate itself autonomously, switching between different resources,” said Wooster.

It does this thanks in part to the Heila controller, provided by a startup company, Heila Technologies, that the microgrid team helped create. Wooster had helped form the startup by approaching major manufacturers such as Schneider Electric and asking them to help produce a local controller that could operate if individual components of the microgrid failed.

The microgrid itself is distributed across the 16-acre farm, with 16 buildings and seven utility service meters.

“When we go into island mode, we disconnect all seven service meters from the grid,” Wooster explained.

To manage this, the microgrid has numerous levels of control, including a central controller and, at the local level, Heila.

“Our system will still operate at the local level with Heila if we lose other levels of control,” he said.

A “distributed optimizer for microgrids,” Heila aims to simplify the design and operation of microgrids, according to the Heila website.

With Heila, every asset in a microgrid gets its own Heila IQ optimizer, which forms a distributed network that can be used by central controllers.

“Our system will still operate with Heila if we lose the other levels. The assets are all automonous. They will maintain their portion of the microgrid respective to what the microgrid needs,” Wooster explained.

The biggest problem with microgrids today…

“The biggest problem with microgrids today is they are all custom,” said Wooster. “Heila overcomes that and works with components at a local level. The central controller looks out and sees five Heilas.”

The lessons learned from the fire fit nicely with the mission of the microgrid team — made up of industry members, interns, the farm’s owners and staff who often partner with the Electric Power Research Institute and other organizations. That mission is to move microgrids forward, Wooster said.

One lesson from the experience was that the microgrid, intended to be a community resource after an earthquake, should also provide shelter during fires. However, to do that, the farm needs face masks and high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to ensure people are breathing air that’s relatively free of pollution, Wooster said. The farm wasn’t prepared for that.

islanded microgrid

View of batteries at Stone Edge Farm

Protections to prevent battery fires

The team also learned that in case of major fires, it’s a good idea to provide protections to prevent fires from the batteries — as the team did.

For example, a Tesla Powerwall is located 25 feet from anything that would burn. Additional batteries in the microgrid include lithium ion phosphate batteries from  SimpliPhi Power that are “totally safe,” said Wooster.

“If we did have a battery explode, we could send energy everywhere else. That point of failure would not take us off line,” Wooster said.

By quickly putting the microgrid in island mode in response to the fires — a “knee-jerk reaction” — the team learned a lot of lessons it wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Top among them, Wooster said: “The microgrid did what it was supposed to do.”

For the long-term social good

To continue the learning process and expand the role of microgrids, the Stone Edge team applied for and received a $1.8 million grant from the California Energy Commission for the Sonoma Valley School District to install solar-plus-storage at a bus barn that also is a food warehouse. The idea is to create an emergency refuge at the site.

And the team is also applying for California Energy Commission grants to build two microgrids on school campuses so they can serve as emergency shelters.

This work makes Stone Edge Farm owner Mac McQuown happy, said Wooster. “We move microgrids forward and do it around the school district, and the long-term social and political good,” he said.

Originally published on Microgrid Knowledge

How to Keep the Lights On After a Hurricane


More than a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, nearly 80 percent of the island remains without power, and food and water can be tough to find. As we rally to help the survivors and look to rebuild, we owe it to the victims there and in hurricane-ravaged Texas, Florida and elsewhere in the Caribbean to build more resilient infrastructure and prevent and reduce such destruction.

Rebuilding the electric grid in Puerto Rico will take months. But blackouts requiring weeks or months to fix are not caused by hurricanes alone. Many of the affected areas are powered by obsolete grids using fossil fuels. These fragile systems are easily knocked out by storms. We can’t eliminate hurricanes. But if we modernize the electric grid, we can stop blackouts caused by monster storms while also saving fossil fuel and reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet and make these storms more likely and destructive.

When one of us (Richard Branson) emerged from his cellar after riding out Hurricane Irma’s assault on Necker Island, the house and everything surrounding it was destroyed — except for the solar power array, which laid flat on ground and remained materially intact. Solar power systems survived Irma and kept working in Florida and Haiti. While Hurricane Harvey cut some Texas power lines, no wind farms were destroyed.

But that does not mean people with their own solar panels or other renewable energy systems managed to keep on their electricity. Though most of those systems were operable immediately after and often even during the storm, they couldn’t produce a watt of power. Outdated utility rules disabled them, not high winds.

After Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, more than 90 percent of the solar panels survived, but utility rules required that solar systems tied to the grid be shut down to guard against voltage surges that could endanger repairmen fixing the power lines. Homes that should never have lost power, or should have recovered it immediately, waited weeks for grid repairs they didn’t need. But modern power electronics have resolved the utilities’ legitimate safety concerns.

Inverters can be installed that can separate solar systems from the main grid, automatically or manually, and allow the solar systems to continue operating even though the grid is down. Unfortunately, nearly all utilities forbid this. In fact, Florida Power and Light lobbied the Legislature hard this year to restrict their customers from access to home-based solar systems when the grid goes down.

We should use this opportunity in Puerto Rico and other places hit hard by recent storms to do two things: Rebuild damaged or destroyed homes and businesses to be as energy efficient as possible, and rebuild the grid so that alternative energy systems like solar and wind, whether on a home or in a microgrid, can operate independently when the larger grid is damaged or shut down. (Microgrids are small networks of electricity users who rely on a local generating source like solar that is usually attached to the larger grid but can operate independently.)

The need for affordable, clean, reliable, resilient power is most acute for the majority of people of Caribbean island nations who pay high prices for electricity generated by burning imported oil and often paid for by imported capital. A nation like the Bahamas can spend a substantial part of its tourist industry’s earnings just to run its electricity system, and other islands are even worse off.

Our organization, the Rocky Mountain Institute, works with the Clinton Foundation, international and regional partners, governments and utilities to help Caribbean island nations switch to modern and regionally abundant solar and wind power. Those efforts were going well before the latest hurricanes. Solar arrays in the Turks and Caicos Islands and on Cooper Island in the British Virgin Islands, among others, survived the hurricanes without damage and were able to provide electricity to nearby communities.

With those storms behind us, we must work to rebuild stronger, fuel-free, stormproof power systems based on decentralized and resilient renewables like solar. We need to use 21st century innovation, not 20th century technology. Importing fossil fuels costs these island nations enormous sums. Yet the sun shines and the wind blows on these islands for free. We’re optimistic we can do this. But we’ll have to resist our own impulses to carry on with business as usual.

We can learn from the experience of another Caribbean nation — Cuba. Most electricity in the country was restored within a week after Irma struck in early September; in Havana, took just three days. More than a decade ago, Cubamodernized its Soviet-era power plants and centralized grid. In 2005 serious blackouts occurred on 224 days. In 2007 the island’s move to decentralized energy cut that to zero. Now, when hurricanes like Irma hit, many parts of Cuba can sustain vital services.

What was Cuba’s resilient formula? First, the efficient use of power, which helped renewables do more at lower cost. Millions of efficient light bulbs, fans, rice cookers, pressure cookers, refrigerators, air-conditioners and pumps were sold nationwide, reducing power usage.

Most important, Cuba added over 1,800 decentralized diesel and fuel-oil-fired electrical plants across the island and upgraded the infrastructure of the grid itself. Cuba lets these local plants or microgrids disconnect from the island’s grid during storms or blackouts and generate their own electricity for local needs. This allows these microgrids to serve their own customers, then reconnect to the larger grid later.

Microgrids are becoming proven and popular around the world from India (where record floods couldn’t stop solar power) to the University of California at San Diego, whose microgrid (powering 92 percent of the campus and saving $8 million a year) reversed flow and sent power back to the utility in less than a half-hour (until wildfires ate a power line).

Some traditional utilities oppose microgrids as a threat to their beleaguered monopoly. But giant electrical equipment firms like Siemens, Schneider and General Electric now offer microgrids, and nearly 2,000 projects were underway worldwide at the end of 2016.

Simple, sensible improvements like these can make our families, communities and nations more secure and durable; save money and create important new value in the electricity, fuel and real-estate industries.

When storms, earthquakes, wildfires or cyberattacks take down our brittle power grid, we should all be able to start rebuilding our homes and lives immediately, with our smartphones and water pumps, filling stations and traffic lights, computers and refrigerators, continuously powered by the world’s greatest uninterruptible power supply — the sun.

Originally published in the New York Times

Recent Superstorms Spotlight the Need to Address Aging Electrical Infrastructure

Mark Feasel, VP of Schneider Electric’s Electric Utility segment and Smart Grid business for Schneider Electric in the U.S.

This year’s hurricane season has been unprecedented. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria have had a major impact on human lives—families and communities are suffering greatly from the consequences of displacement and damages stemming from natural disasters.

When these situations occur, electricity availability is a critical step in restoring a sense of normalcy to the affected people and communities.

However, disaster recovery efforts become strained when operating within the framework of an aging electrical system. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2017 Report Card for America’s Infrastructuregrades our country’s energy delivery system a “D+”.

Our power system is further strained by the demands of a new energy landscape, with the forces of digitization, decentralization and decarbonization creating a new reality of power generation and distribution, one for which our current system is not optimized.

While an overnight overhaul of America’s aging electrical infrastructure is neither practical nor realistic, we do have an opportunity to re-build smarter when major chunks of the grid fail, and microgrids have an outsized role to play. Historically, resiliency has been achieved through redundancy, diversity, and efficiency. Microgrids refine and enhance that approach through modularity and digitized solutions.  Microgrid technology supports a next-generation grid that can still incorporate the positive aspects of our existing electrical infrastructure while increasing the grid’s efficiency, resiliency, safety, security and sustainability.

When large-scale outages occur, microgrids can minimize the impact on consumers by serving critical load with local generation, and allowing energy providers to anticipate outages through advanced analytics and configure the system for a minimized impact and quicker recovery.

When large-scale outages occur, microgrids can minimize the impact on consumers by serving critical load with local generation, and allowing energy providers to anticipate outages through advanced analytics and configure the system for a minimized impact and quicker recovery. For example, they offer operators the autonomy to island the grid, shed non-critical load, and prepare generation sources for dispatch ensuring that their facility or consumers do not experience an outage or poor power quality conditions. At the same time, in our new reality of power generation and distribution, grid management software enables the integration of renewable energy, harmonizes distributed zones of control to further protect against outages, and extends the life of existing electrical assets. Following a superstorm, microgrids can also initiate a smart rebuilding process that speeds the grid’s recovery time and restores power with as minimal downtime as possible.

Times of catastrophe highlight the importance of efficiency and resiliency within our electrical infrastructure, but it should always be a priority. Increased stress on the electrical grid due to extreme weather and urbanization will continue to take place, so with that in mind, there must be collaboration from technology providers, utilities and regulators, as well as businesses and communities, to create meaningful change. By adopting microgrids and other electrical infrastructure upgrades, we can leverage technology for system transformation—introducing new levels of resiliency, speeding up recovery time after an outage and even preventing catastrophic failures. This a call to action for our entire community. This new digital world of energy—with more decentralized generation, a two-way flow of decarbonized energy and more digitization for flexible, dynamic energy management—gives us an opportunity to co-create the future of the electric system.

Originally published on Microgrid Knowledge