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The third week of the Microgrids 2021 Virtual Conference, organized by Microgrid Knowledge, closed with a session titled, “What’s Next in Microgrid Tech.” 

Moderated by Kay Aikin, CEO of Dynamic Grid, the session featured three panelists: Jaimie Hamilton-Antonson, Technical Leader of Energy Management Systems for Cummins Inc.; David Theodore, Co-Founder and Chief Technical Officer for Climate Resilient Internet, LLC; and Kevin Chen, PE and SMIEE Manager for Grid Strategy & Analytics in Smart Grid and Innovation at ComEd.

Together, the panel discussed their predictions for which cutting-edge technological or engineering innovations will kick off the next chapter for microgrid advancements.

Using Hydrogen to Lower Carbon Footprints

Hamilton began the session by naming hydrogen as the key to cleaner energy and lower emissions. She predicted that the adoption of hydrogen will be particularly quick in the next few years due to national targets for zero carbon emissions by 2050 across Europe and in Japan, South Korea, and Canada. Germany already plans to spend $9 billion in hydrogen infrastructure this decade and California has committed to spending $230 million on hydrogen projects by the end of 2023.

Hamilton cautioned that, although hydrogen can be carbon neutral, not all hydrogen is created equal, depending upon the method of generation. For example, green hydrogen is produced via electrolysis using renewable energy and is considered carbon free. In contrast, gray hydrogen comes from steam-methane reformers powered by hydrocarbon-based fuels, like diesel and natural gas, and will have “significant carbon emissions.” Blue hydrogen is produced when gray hydrogen is coupled with carbon capture and storage and has a lower carbon footprint.

According to Hamilton, today, over 98% of manufactured hydrogen is either blue or gray.

Hydrogen, Hamilton argued, will help to balance supply and demand in microgrids with renewable energy assets. Since peak output from renewable energy does not always coincide with peak demand, hydrogen can store excess energy for long periods of time until demand later requires it.

Although hydrogen is not yet competitive at a commercial level, this is expected to change.

Until then, hydrogen can be blended into natural gas pipelines in order to be used right away. By blending 25% green hydrogen into natural gas pipelines, national carbon emissions can be reduced by 6%, thereby preventing the release of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Blending would not require any significant changes to existing infrastructure.

What’s Next In Microgrid Tech - Hydrogen

Cutting the Cable on Wi-fi

In the second presentation, Theodore loftily promised an innovation that vastly improves the return on investment of all microgrids and saves “what economists call ‘the world’s most valuable resource,’” i.e. the internet.

Internet infrastructure consists of fiber optic cables, which are dependent upon utility grids. If the grid goes down, so will the internet data centers and every other business, service, and organization that depends upon it.

Although internet data centers may be independently resilient to black-outs, they are islands that cannot provide service to their clients.

Millimeter wave wireless can wirelessly transmit tens of gigabits of data per second from rooftop to rooftop, between the internet data center and any client connected to a microgrid. Without the restrictions of physical, terrestrial cables, millimeter wave has a range of about 2 miles.

While telecommunication companies are interested in this concept in order to improve their storm resiliency and minimize interruptions in service, microgrid providers can use this opportunity to turn their microgrids into a source of income: “they can partner with a certified resilient internet provider to earn a percentage of internet revenue averaging thousands of dollars a month,” Theodore claimed.

What’s Next In Microgrid Tech - Fiber

Using Algorithms to Unify Separate Microgrids and Optimize Power

To wrap up the session, Chen described ComEd’s ongoing community microgrid project in Bronzeville in the south side of Chicago. The project includes 7 MW of aggregate load that serves residences, businesses, and public buildings and services and feeds from two substations. The system is powered by 2.5 megawatts of solar photovoltaic energy, a natural gas generator, and battery storage.

The novel facet of this project is its shared control over the customer-owned Illinois Institute of Technology’s microgrid. As more and more microgrids are built in dense clusters, Chen theorized, power flow can be shared between them in order to share the stress during localized power outages.

Chen highlighted the system’s custom-designed algorithm that combines solar forecasting software with load forecasting software to help predict and optimize the best times to switch between solar power and natural gas-based energy generation.

The three novel technologies presented during the session, hydrogen fuel cells, millimeter wave wireless, and optimization algorithms, have the potential to redefine how microgrids are designed, implemented, and paid for. As the impacts of climate change stress current infrastructure like never before, these innovations may be sorely needed.

Photo credits: (Ed van duijn / Unsplash) (Denny Müller / Unsplash)

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