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The rise of the microgrid - building the electrical internet

George Lawton Profile picture for user George Lawton June 14, 2023
Summary:
Switching on to a new approach to address power challenges.

power

The modern power grid was built long before solar energy was even imagined. Today it proves a major bottleneck to adopting renewable power sources. Recent efforts to enable open source software (OSS) microgrids and digitizing electrical infrastructure IT might help.

It’s generally recognized that gigawatts of new solar and wind will have to come online for the UK to meet its carbon reduction goals. But despite tremendous progress in producing new solar panels, businesses now face delays of up to fifteen years to connect renewable power sources. One big bottleneck is reliably connecting new power sources to the national electrical grid, created before small-scale power sources were even practical.

Similar problems plague other countries. The US, for example, has three large-scale grids. The Texas Grid went dark for days in 2021, causing an estimated $195 billion in property damages, even though the other two grids had plenty of power. In general, these large-scale grids have helped safely grow our electrical infrastructure. But they can’t keep pace with rapid shifts in environmental problems caused by climate change, fires, and efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

In some ways, the current grid is like the early days of networking, where coaxial cables were strung together to form a bus of interconnected computers. When one connection goes offline, it can take down the network. Things got better with the introduction of Ethernet networks connected by switches. Later, routers provided the glue for connecting across networks.

Microgrids, by their very nature, are starting small for connecting a facility, factory or campus to its power sources and consumption. Down the road, they could enable more resilient power network designs that are more resilient. It’s a tricky challenge since you can’t just wire two networks together and hope for the best. Each interconnect must “shape” the power signals to balance frequency, latency, and timing with millisecond and microvolt precision.

The new Linux foundation is developing the software and hardware to ensure that equipment from different vendors works together, much like the Interop plugfests did for networking at the dawn of the Internet.

Open source opportunities

The Linux Foundation recently published a report on “The Open Source Opportunity for Microgrids, which explores some of the key ways an open source approach could drive innovation and overcome market barriers for energy resilience.

The report concludes that microgrids are essential to improve energy resilience and advance decarbonization. The market faces various challenges that the open-source ecosystem is well-positioned to address. Specific key findings include:

  • Improving access to microgrid resources lowers barriers to energy access, expertise, and understanding across all stakeholders.
  • Accelerating microgrid design and time-to-market helps overcome economic and policy hurdles through open data sharing, improved cost efficiencies, and modularity.
  • Improving interoperability and standards adoption could foster ecosystem collaboration, consensus, transparency, and compatibility across the stack.
  • Enabling microgrid business models via software will enable new business models.
  • Adopting IT and telecom approaches could help enable innovation and resilience in the power industry and improve security.

Energizing a paradigm shift

Dr. Antonello Monti of RWTH Aachen University, who serves as Chair of the LF Energy Technical Advisory Council, said that microgrids are critical because of the shift to new energy sources. An electrical grid needs to balance generating and load at every instant. In a fuel-driven economy, the sum of power loads sets the requirements, and generation follows. New renewable energy sources are at the mercy of sunlight and wind, so they may generate when they can more rather than in response to demand. Monti says:

This change of paradigm requires a far more complex process of orchestration that involves all the actors, including the final users. The complexity is first related to the number of devices that must be coordinated and controlled. The best way to address this challenge is to create a mechanism of operation that starts from the bottom and builds the grid up. This is exactly the opposite of what we have today where the big power plants drive a hierarchical top-down approach.

This bottom-up approach requires local coordination, and microgrids are the most promising idea. He explains:

Microgrids create local intelligent units that aggregate local assets to optimize the local operation and at the same time interaction with the rest of the infrastructure. Microgrids can operate connected to the mains or also in islanding mode, completely disconnected from the rest of the grid.

Different kinds of microgrids

There are different kinds of microgrids, including private and public infrastructure. Private microgrid infrastructure, such as a university campus, is the easiest to implement, with a single owner fully responsible for the infrastructure. Public microgrid infrastructure is more complex and depends on the appropriate regulation. One option is a synergy between local operators and a local energy community.

Monti expects several benefits, including:

  • Increased resilience since local microgrids can continue running to limit the effects of a blackout.
  • Better use of infrastructure thanks to better use of energy on a local scale and the consequent reduction of investment needs.
  • Creation of valuable business cases for private owners stimulating investments in renewables.

Aggregation is also possible through virtual power plants (VPP), but these run without considering the underlying infrastructure. As a result, while they are a very good market instrument, they bring little support in managing local congestion and grid constraints. Monti says:

The more we evolve in the energy transition, the more the widespread presence of renewables will call for solving local problems, making microgrids powerful tools combining market and infrastructure benefits.

He believes that OSS can facilitate the adoption of microgrids for several reasons. First, it creates automatic interoperability, which is critical for the orchestration of assets. Standardization can and should follow, but adoption is faster with OSS. It also facilitates the involvement of small investors at a private level, removing barriers in terms of software acquisition. OSS also facilitates joint development to create synergies between grid operators and local energy communities.

Much work ahead

Adoption depends a lot on regulation. The EU Commission has released relevant legislation with the Clean Energy Package in Europe. Adoption at the member state level has been rather slow, and interpretation is different, country by country. Monti says:

There is still work to be done, particularly to enable the creation of microgrids embedded in public infrastructure.

Adoption is more straightforward on private microgrids since regulation plays a much smaller role. This is why the most relevant examples of microgrids have emerged mostly in private campuses.

However, several efforts are underway to build larger microgrids, such as one in Brooklyn, New York. There are also efforts to build test cases in Simris, Sweden and Twistringen, Germany.

Digitizing the grid

The Linux Foundation is also working to develop OSS software to digitize the operations of the large power grids. This is important because it will be key in automating the interconnects required for energy innovations. But this is no easy task since grid operators have traditionally focused on resilience and safety rather than innovation. Monti explains:

Grid operators are traditionally quite conservative because they are called to a hard task that does not accept exceptions. Trying new technologies is challenging because compromises on the quality of power delivery are not acceptable. Continuity of service is the first and key requirement. However, when challenges become extreme, experiments become necessary.

Grid constraints in the Netherlands are pushing operators to become more innovative. The city of Rome is also exploring digitization, where various types of constraints make grid reinforcement extremely expensive.

The only possible solution to these constraints is the development of automation platforms that can help grid operators in controlling assets to achieve optimal use of the existing infrastructure. Solutions combine direct control actions on grid assets and automatic market instruments exploiting flexibility at the customer level.

Culture change required

Monti says a culture change will also be required to keep pace with the new workflows since distribution grid operators did not have to deal with complex IT infrastructure. He notes:

In the old world, operators purchased monolithic software from vendors with the perspective that only small updates and changes were expected in the future. In the new world, they need open and flexible solutions able to support rapid changes and adaptations while the energy transition evolves. As a matter of fact, we do not know today which type of requirements we will have in a few years. We are learning by doing how the grid changes while we proceed in the implementation of the energy transition.

Old SCADA systems are a good example of such monolithic solutions. New IT architectures based on microservices provide a completely new approach where modularity, scalability and adaptability are possible. An example in this direction is LF Energy’s project, SOGNO, which is building a modular platform to open legacy systems incrementally.

This gigantic challenge calls for cooperation between grid operators, vendors, and regulators. The hope is that OSS could provide a way of working together to reduce costs for everyone and make the energy transition more affordable and timelier.

One recent success is the grid operator in Rome, Areti, which participated in a research project coordinated by RWTH Aachen University called H2020 Platone. As a result, they decided to fully embrace the OSS and build the next generation of their Distribution Management System using open source. Monti says: 

This does not mean that they are building everything alone. They are teaming up with industry, which is helping them bring the vision to reality. They work with companies such as Athos or Google that are integrating the solutions and providing the infrastructure. At the same time, they maintain control of the process, and they can define an agenda for the transition integrating new services when new challenges appear in their grid.

My take

Manufacturers are making tremendous strides in scaling the quantity and reducing the costs of new renewable energy sources. While the factories are running full blast, it’s shocking the technical and regulatory challenges facing the grid to bring this new power online. It feels somewhat reminiscent of the shipping bottlenecks that caused empty containers to pile up at ports during COVID-times.

It’s refreshing to learn that open source might pave the way for efficiently scaling the grid. But it’s going to require a lot of cooperation and research. While we may be somewhat tolerant of our Internet provider going offline for an hour here or there, power outages are much more costly. And the power industry cannot afford to move fast and break things in the way that social media sites might be comfortable with.

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