For Utility Microgrid Adoption to Grow, Do We Need a Name Change?

During a recent conversation with HG Chissell, founder and CEO of Advanced Energy Group, we came up with this interesting thought: Is the name “microgid” actually hurting the adoption of utility microgrids?” Our thinking was that, because of the microgrid name, it puts this reliability-improvement methodology into a special category for scrutiny by public utility commissions. The commissions tend to balk at supporting funding for projects that benefit a limited number of customers, as microgrids tend to do.

I can’t get this conversation out of my mind. The idea has some merit. For example, if a utility wants to install a feeder tie to improve the reliability of a particular feeder or if it wants to add a capacitor bank to better manage the voltage on a feeder, who do they need to go to for approval? The answer is no one. It just follows regular distribution engineering practices.

Say the utility instead wants to put a microgrid at the end of that feeder, and that microgrid might tie to another generation source or to an energy storage system that would manage voltage for the back end of that feeder. All of a sudden the public utility commission immediately objects because it’s deemed a special class of service. In reality, all of the components that go into a microgrid, with the exception of the microgrid controller, are components already on most utility systems, just in different configurations.

Words are important. We have created our own problem by assigning a “buzz word.” Because we call it a microgrid, the commission automatically, and maybe rightly so, says the project requires additional scrutiny. But what if you just called it an advanced reliability solution instead or some other innocuous name? Would utilities be able to adopt microgrids much faster because the name didn’t have the same stigma attached to the concept of the name “microgrid?”

Don’t get me wrong, I can see where the argument in favor of more scrutiny for microgrids is derived. When you invest millions of dollars in a microgrid, by definition you’re going to serve the affected small, bordered area differently from all the other areas around it. So, theoretically they will be providing a better class of service to that particular group.

However, if the utility put in a feeder tie instead, would it really serve everyone along that feeder the same? Not really. We know voltage and frequency will behave differently the closer you are to a generation source, a feeder tie, or a substation. So in reality, you’d be serving people on the ends of the feeder better than you are in the middle of the feeder if you install the feeder tie. It’s called the theory of constraints; by fixing one area, you by definition create a new “weakest link.” There are any number of different ways you can look at it using any number of distribution engineering devices, but the reality is nobody today will balk if a utility wants to install a feeder tie. That’s a known distribution engineering solution.

But if you wanted to solve the problem instead of patching it, you could put a microgrid in, and the benefits would be at least the same and likely greater than what you would have traditionally done. If you think about it, that really benefits everyone along the feeder, not just the area immediately surrounding the microgrid. But because of the concentrated area of benefit that the name “microgrid” implies, you end up with this equity-of-service issue. I’m not saying that’s entirely a bad thing, but there is no doubt it is impeding adoption.  

I don’t have the right answer here. HG and I racked our brains to come up with the right word to identify this reliability-improvement mechanism currently called “microgrid.” We never surfaced anything that sounds as sticky as “microgrid.” Maybe you can help us–and everyone else–by suggesting some names. I’d be interested in learning your thoughts on this in the Comments section below.

Author

David Chiesa

Publication Date

July 12, 2017