Sharing systems could help building owners get more from microgrids
In Chicago, a cluster of museums is exploring the case for combining energy systems, but thorny questions remain.
Shared microgrids can help building owners lower costs and boost resilience, but big questions need to be sorted out first on how the systems operate.
While still a fledgling market, shared microgrids — sometimes called multi-user microgrids — are gaining increased attention from researchers and industry players. As with single-user microgrids, the systems combine some type of energy storage and generation with technology that allows them to separate from the larger grid in the event of a power outage or other disruption.
One potential site: Chicago’s Museum Campus. Located in the downtown Loop, it’s home to three of the Midwest’s largest museums — the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Field Museum of Natural History — all with large, complex energy needs. The facilities are exploring ways to connect their energy systems in a way that benefits them all.
“It’s a matter of time before you’re starting to see some companies partnering and figuring out financial models to own a microgrid,” said Bob Wengel, the Shedd Aquarium’s senior vice president for facilities. “All three of these museums could become a microgrid. During certain times and certain conditions, the campus could stand for hours by itself, detached from the larger grid.”
Still, questions remain about who benefits from the cost savings and who manages such systems. And there are lots of thorny distribution contract questions to be sorted out, too. A team of researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University and the Northeast Clean Energy Council recently took a crack at addressing these questions in a white paper that looked at obstacles to multi-user microgrids and presented ideas for potential solutions.
Utilities have long provided affordable power, and the business case for shared microgrids hasn’t always been clear — especially in the Midwest where power remains very affordable. However, customers increasingly want resilience, and microgrids are increasingly affordable.
“There will be a growing number of situations in which [multi-user microgrids] will become viable. Even today, certain sets of customers find the benefits offered by MUMs to outweigh the additional costs,” the paper said.
One major obstacle is delineating who owns and operates the different components. Most microgrids have a single operator, so all the extra power that’s not used in the home or business is sold back to a distribution utility or to the wholesale market. With a shared microgrid, the contractual and regulatory hurdles are considerably more complicated, and often look risky to businesses.
“Frankly, it’s uncharted territory,” said Ryan Katofsky, vice president of industry analysis at Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy business group. “You’ve got multiple customers; they might each have some resources on their own property. Some might have rooftop solar, one might have a fuel cell in the basement, and another one might have a different kind of sophisticated load control system. The challenge then becomes: How do you sort of coordinate the operations of all of those resources?”
Who owns and operates the different components of the microgrid? Who makes the decisions when to island? “There are going to be communications with the utility and contractual arrangements,” he said. “The utility might provide some of the equipment, if it’s on their side of the meter. A customer or a third party might provide equipment if it’s on the customer side of the meter.”