Industry Article

Making Microgrids Standard Practice Requires Industry Standard

Microgrids are a powerful tool for reaching carbon-neutrality goals and building grid resilience. Standardization could pave the way for greater and faster adoption.

After Hurricane Sandy, Milford, Connecticut was without power for 12 days. Knowing Sandy wouldn’t be the last storm to cause outages, the town invested in a microgrid to improve the resilience of its power infrastructure. The microgrid now keeps the lights on in five buildings, even during disruptions to the main grid. Milford shows how crucial microgrids are for resilient systems, especially in an era of increasingly decentralized energy distribution. 


Milford Green in Milford, Connecticut

Milford Green in Milford, Connecticut. Image used courtesy of Fadein at en.wikipedia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


While there are numerous benefits to microgrids, historically, they tend to be highly customized initiatives, hampering their uptake. Luckily, we are starting to hear the drumbeat of voices calling for microgrid standardization grow louder. This collective voice will be paramount to accelerating microgrid adoption, a powerful tool for reaching carbon-neutrality goals and building resilience


Microgrid Design Needs Standardization to Scale 

Milford connected its microgrid to two government buildings, a senior center, a senior living facility, and a school. An underground network of cables connects the buildings to the combined heat and power generator, as well as the storage battery and solar panels. The Milford grid design reinforces the need for industry standardization. 

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Image used courtesy of Flickr


Not every microgrid will connect the same types of buildings or generate electricity from the same power sources. Along with physical assets connected to microgrids, distributed energy resources (DERs) also incorporate information technology infrastructure to manage supply, demand, and storage and to monitor the entire system. And a microgrid in Southern California will not adhere to the same local tariffs or climate conditions as one in coastal Connecticut. 

Implementation also comes with questions about integrations with the utility, battery sizes and types, and how to best maintain and operate the DER. With so many variables to the microgrid equation, it’s no wonder they’ve largely been custom solutions to this point. Standardization is the next step in microgrid evolution and will benefit all stakeholders. 

Product standardization is being done both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal standardization ensures that the individual components are designed for integration and expansion in a predictable and supported fashion. Vertical integration ensures that the integration of associated components and data is considered. Intelligent standardization allows new functionality and features to be added as market needs and technological features emerge. 


Holistic Standards Will Streamline Microgrid Adoption

Energy-industry experts have long called for microgrid standardization, evaluating how to develop the systems with uniform guidelines. Since the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability’s first major program in 2008, government agencies and regulators have answered the call. Today, nearly two dozen state-of-the-art standards govern the development and deployment of microgrids, most mainly concerned with distributed power generation. 

The proliferation of standards has helped progress microgrid adoption. Existing regulations cover ten countries representing most of the world’s renewable capacity. Yet, adding more standards to the list may be counterproductive to expanding microgrid implementation. The industry sorely needs a single standard that outlines microgrid best practices and interoperability specifications. 

Some researchers believe that IEEE 1547 is the most comprehensive standard. It provides “technical specifications for, and testing of, the interconnection and interoperability between utility electric power systems (EPSs) and [DERs]” like microgrids. The standard is a strong foundational building block for the industry, covering test protocols, power quality, and installation evaluation, among other facets of DER implementation. Enhancing the framework with a greater emphasis on the IT side of energy distribution may pave the way for the global standard the industry seeks. 

Much of current standards’ focus is on the mechanical components of DERs. Today, however, software governs how these components interact with one another and those of other systems. Software provides stakeholders vital information about the microgrid, from design to deployment. A microgrid standard must offer a framework that melds physical and software components guidelines. It should provide a path for repeatable and testable software bricks and software architectures that encapsulate controls, data collection and analysis, equipment, and integration. 

A microgrid standard will allow engineers to use software technology to increase efficiency and deployment speed. Repeatable building blocks will eliminate the need for custom-coded controls and allow power engineers to focus on design. By streamlining development, standards will help limit lead times during design and manufacturing, reduce costs, and make it easier to size, quote, build, install, and maintain microgrids. 


Partner Ecosystem Needed to Advance Standards

An industry standard will help cut through microgrid purpose, cost, and regulatory compliance questions. Modular, standardized equipment should fit the needs and specifications of any end user. Still, end consumers will need experts' help navigating that standard to implement and maintain microgrids correctly. This expertise can take many forms, including software systems that advise consumers about energy use and organizations steeped in industry knowledge.  

A vast ecosystem of specialized organizations already exists. Power distribution companies, software vendors, and hardware manufacturers can help energy consumers harmonize every facet of microgrid implementation. Digital training and support for contractors, designers, and system integrators can keep organizations digitally savvy in an increasingly connected world. Tapping into the network of knowledgeable partners will allow end consumers to reach their energy-generation goals while reducing risk exposure.

The microgrid project in Milford almost died when the state changed how grantees could distribute the funds. Partnerships with organizations that have navigated similar confounding factors helped the Connecticut town move forward with the project despite the hiccup. Such is the power of partners with local expertise. Partners also enabled Milford to expand the benefits of its microgrid. 

Microgrids are sometimes incorrectly defined as backup power systems. While that is one valuable use case, there are many others.  Microgrids control DERs for peak shaving, load control, and tariff management, which also serves as a revenue stream for the city by reducing energy expenditures.   


Standards Represent a Path to Resilience

Microgrids are ideally suited for many business and technical needs, such as improving customer experiences and enhancing infrastructure for EV use. Yet in those variable examples exists the industry’s major challenge: the design, development, implementation, and maintenance landscape is fractured, even in the wake of various regulations. 

The best path forward is establishing global technical standards coupled with industry product standardization and simplification for microgrids and DERs. Standards, coupled with expert partnership, can introduce needed visibility into projects. When all stakeholders better understand the project’s goals from the jump, it will introduce additional customer opportunities, improve DER reliability, and help spur decarbonization.