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Zapotec’s Engineers Tackle Microgrids with Help from HOMER Energy, LLC
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Zapotec’s Engineers Tackle Microgrids with Help from HOMER Energy, LLC image

Microgrid: “A group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid. A Microgrid can connect and disconnect from the grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or island-mode.” – US Department of Energy

The buzz about microgrids has been around for several years, but development has been stuck in a stage of ideation. The high cost of energy storage and the success of grid-direct solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have made most projects impractical– until now. The combination of declining prices in energy storage, a shift in utility regulation, and the adoption of progressive state incentives has created a confluence for microgrids, making projects more attractive to investors than ever before. In fact, the price of energy storage is expected to drop 70 percent over the next 15 years, which will lead to many new opportunities for variable renewable energy sources.

Zapotec’s design engineers recently worked with HOMER Energy LLC, a leading microgrid modeling software company, to complete an introductory training on microgrid optimization. Similar to an online classroom, the training was conducted in a manner that allowed the engineers to ask questions and guide the training toward their own areas of interest. Zapotec’s lead design engineer, Ella Willard-Schmoe, says that the software’s interface was well designed and intuitive. Although the training was only for two days, it was clear that the teacher was extremely knowledgeable about hybrid optimization of multiple energy resources (HOMER).

Designing a microgrid can be a complex task, but HOMER Energy’s software simplifies the technical design process and offers relatively easy economic evaluation. The program is meant to optimize microgrids by allowing users to compare multiple system sizes, configurations and other technical characteristics, giving clients the greatest possible return on investment. Still, a major challenge in designing a microgrid is collecting all of the data that is necessary to truly optimize the system. For instance, engineers need to obtain detailed building load data and utility rate schedules in order to accurately design a grid interactive solar-plus-storage system that is configured for “peak shaving,” a term used to describe the practice of reducing utility demand charges.

A salient feature of a microgrid system is its ability to operate in islanded mode when disconnected from the grid. Because of this capability, microgrids are appealing to communities located in areas where the electric grid does not yet reach, or where the grid is unreliable. Nevertheless, as interest in renewables and storage increases across the United States there continues to be greater interest in the development of microgrids to improve the resiliency of the grid. According to a study conducted by G&S Business Communications, approximately 68 percent of Americans “feel it is more important to have a resilient power grid than to enjoy lower electricity costs.” This mindset is exemplified by Massachusetts as more clients and institutions shift the focus of their renewable energy goals towards improving resiliency to possible grid outages, especially since stronger storms are expected as a result of climate change.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) commissioned a study in 2014 that identifies the benefits, barriers and potential policy initiatives that would support a microgrid market in the state. In addition, the MA Department of Energy Resources (DOER), in partnership with the MassCEC, recently released its State of Charge report outlining similar aspects of the energy storage market in Massachusetts. With these two sectors expected to boom in the next several years, it will be interesting to see what the agencies’ next steps will be to enable the state to be an industry leader.

Zapotec’s design engineers are capable of designing and simulating complex solar-plus-storage systems of virtually any size. They are looking forward to working on this type of project in the future.


Image: Stevens, Joshua. "Power Outages [from Hurricane Matthew] Plague Southeast." NASA Earth Observatory. October 8, 2016.


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