Renewable Energy Resilience

Nanogrids, Microgrids and Virtual Power Plants

Expert on new energy business models such as nanogrids, microgrids and virtual power plants, covering cutting edge energy and environmental issues for over 25 years.

Just Like Hot Dogs, Chicago-Style Microgrids Unique

The market for microgrids is evolving, with many utilities shifting their stance from curious bystanders to active participants. Utilities ranging from Duke Energy to San Diego Gas & Electric are building microgrids, with many others scratching their collective heads as they try to figure out what their role might be.

If we take a bird’s eye view, the East Coast seems to be the hot bed for regulatory reforms to enable microgrids primarily in a deregulated policy environment – i.e. the New York Prize funding for 83 projects being the prime example. California is more focused on long-term planning for a rich variety of distributed energy resources (DER.) The country’s heartland is taking yet a different approach, with microgrids that have much more in common with a utility smart grid innovation.

The key differentiator in the Chicago area are large scale microgrids on the utility side of the meter. As a result, they can take advantage of the expertise of S&C Electric’s portfolio of products. For example, the company’s offerings center on smart switch and smart inverter products to optimize energy storage. Working in conjunction with one another, these hardware devices reduce permanent outages resulting when lateral fuses operate in response to momentary faults – including brief interruptions on feeder lines when substation breakers trip. Other S&C microgrid offerings include an automatic restoration system that can restore power within seconds.

This approach -- unlike the more typical behind-the-meter microgrids -- is designed to manage distributed energy resources (DER) on behalf of the utility first (rather than the customer-focused approach of majority of microgrids deployed to date.)

While S&C Electric serves as an example of vendor innovation, ComEd is plowing new ground as a utility exploring the microgrid market with proposals for the rate-basing of utility distribution microgrids.

Along with being awarded a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) grant to develop a microgrid controller capable to managing multiple microgrids, ComEd is plowing new ground on the regulatory front. Unlike New York or California, the fate of ComEd’s broader microgrid program designed to steer $300 million in rate based funding toward six microgrid projects is dependent upon state lawmakers. The proposed legislation – HB 3328/SB 1879 - encompasses much more than just microgrids. If approved, however, it would set a major precedent in supporting the concept of rate basing microgrids to support critical infrastructure. Due to the unique configuration of these proposed systems, the proposed legislation appears to be a major step forward for utility distribution microgrids.

Navigant Research will soon be publishing its first Leaderboard report on microgrids. The company ranking will be focused on project developers and/or system integrators that also offer their own controls platform for optimizing a microgrid. As a result, many key innovators in the space were left out. Among them, utilities such as ComEd as well as S&C Electric. Yet both of these firms are moving the market forward in ways not imagined just a short time ago.

©2016 Peter Asmus. Photo credit: David Clites. Website by: