Microgrids – an information and energy revolution

6 04 2009

One of the keynote highlights (both at the beginning and end) at this year’s OSIsoft User Conference pertained to the novel intersection of energy and information.  A similar topic addressed frequently by Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates

The basic tenet is that information and brainpower will always defeat an energy crisis.  This is something I believe quite strongly, and it’s no secret that Pat Kennedy (founder of OSIsoft) thinks he’s both got the problem described, and solution nailed with OSisoft’s product.

I’m also involved in the renewable energy revolution, and the work I’m helping do in that area harnesses the power of information to transform the reliability of renewable resources… but more on that in some other post.

Pat Kennedy talked about using information to fuel a localized, business-park level energy production and distribution design called “microgrids”.  Basically, small islands of businesses (and perhaps residences) that can produce power, utilities like steam and chilled water, and can operate independent from the grid if needed.

The upshot of a microgrid is that it can lead to a better use of energy – every BTU spent in power generation is maximized because of very tight energy integration to other utilities required by process manufacturing tenants.  Fuel spent on firing a combined cycle gas turbine is then converted to heat for making steam, which is then used by other tenants in the park, which can help drive machines to do other work.

Renewable energy can also play a part in these microgrid designs.  Solar rooftops can run the street lights or anything else that can operate during the day.  The same goes for wind, though decoupling both these renewable resources from the actual electrical grid in the microgrid would help keep it stabilized.  Renewables would be focused on creating energy required to do things that don’t have a direct impact on the grid frequency, but do reduce the energy demand on the main power generation units. 

Like powering a new kind of HVAC technology…

At the end of the conference ICE Energy discussed their product that results in electrical peak load-shifting on the demand side of the energy curve.  They can diminish the cooling load required for business buildings or industrial applications by creating ice at night when energy is cheap (often renewable since wind power works best at night), and plentiful.  During the day, the ice melts, and as any good chemical engineer knows, the latent heat of the ice melting is then used to provide air conditioning.  That reduces energy demand, and therefore customer expenses during peak-use (and rate) times.

Of course, ICE Energy uses OSisoft’s PI System to help manage and instrument their machinery.  So it’s one big happy, real-time data family.  But the results are important:

By combining innovative energy consumption and production / distribution technologies and monitoring everything in a high fidelity, high speed way, it’s easy for any engineer to make a microgrid work in its most efficient way possible.  It’s like the “Prius effect”.

By scheduling the operations of the microgrid’s tenants to move their peak demand off to cheaper hours, tenants will operate in the “energy sweet spot” where their operations become both cheaper and more sustainable.

What’s the catch?

Policy.  Right now, any company that employs co-generation assets is not allowed to sell their energy out to the main grid.  They can use it on their own, but due to regulations, they are not allowed to work in the energy market at large – which could be quite profitable for a very efficient generator with spare power during peak times.

Microgrids can offer some shelter from the current policies because under the auspices of a landlord / tenant relationship, the utility provider can make the utilities they offer part of the lease agreement.  But it’s not quite as flexible as being able to plainly work as utilities do with their customers.

It’s an idea that’s catching on, and it’s all about leveraging information from both inside the business park / microgrid, and outside.  To see an example of this in practice, visit http://www.eastmanbusinesspark.com.  Eastman even offers up energy analysis optimization services to keep tenants on track with efficient energy practices.

It’s all about the data… everything must be instrumented, analyzed, and watched for ultimate efficiency gains.  And those gains could be substantial.



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