Nanogrids and Microgrids are Keys to Decentralizing the Energy Infrastructure

September 13, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

nanogridThe Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Keating Sports Center is the site of an innovative nanogrid, according to Aquion Energy.

The nanogrid, which was designed by Azimuth Energy, runs both alternating current and direct current and uses solar energy to feed Aquion Aspen batteries. The power control electronics are from Schneider Electric, the press release says.

The DC element of the nanogrid runs the facility’s LED lighting. Other loads and battery charging are handled by the AC element. “This type of system demonstrates that distributed energy can be used to feed DC and AC loads, and that a system of this kind makes sense technically and financially and provides energy efficiency gains,” wrote Terry Holtz, Aquion’s Senior Application Engineer in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today. “This type of system also provides resiliency in the case of grid outages. We see this system applying to any commercial customer looking to maximize energy efficiency and bring resiliency to their building loads.”

Nanogrids essentially is the microgrid concept — creating islands of power generation that rely on renewables and can either work in concert with or independently of the utility — taken to its logical conclusion. Indeed, a big piece of the value proposition may be that nanogrids are so small that they ease the transition to decentralized power. Asha Labs puts it this way:

The off-grid central Texas farm with its solar panels and its diesel generator on the back of the pickup truck is already operating as a nanogrid.  Why is it less disruptive to the utility? Because nanogrids, at current scale, do not take too much off the plate of the utility enabling them make the adjustment in a more transitional way. Why is it good for consumers? The ability to manage your own generation, demand and usage using renewable energy is where we are all going so why not get there earlier than others[?]

The small microgrid category – nanogrids and microgrids – is growing. Navigant Research found that the sector will be worth $17.5 billion annually by 2024. That represents the lion’s share of the $25 billion value of the remote power systems by that year, according to Navigant.

As usual, the definitions around emerging technologies are a bit confusing. One reason — and something of which those interested in the concept should be aware — is that marketing departments seek to attach hot names to technology that that may or may not comport to a strict definition of a category. When no actual standards exist, ambiguity tends to emerge. Thus, the line between microgrids and nanogrids seems to be a bit fuzzy.

nanogrid

The nanogrid installation at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Keating Sports Center.

Peter Asmus, the Navigant researcher who follows the category, wrote last year at Forbes about the comparison of microgrids and nanogrids. He suggests that nanogrids rely on solar as their energy source. Microgrids, since they are bigger, tend to incorporate wind and combined heat and power – using the excess from onsite generation — as options.

There are two points here. One, which Asmus makes, is that the nanogrid subsector may be bigger and perhaps founded on broader business rationales than the microgrid if an apples to apples (ie, solar source only) comparison is made. Perhaps more importantly, his differentiation suggests real differences beyond simply size for the two sub-sectors. This will be increasingly important as the categories evolve.

What is clear, however, is that both can benefit organizations in a couple of ways. A microgrid or nanogrid, which includes storage and sophisticated controls, provides a path to vastly extending the value of the renewable resource to which it attached. Suddenly, solar power is viable at night and wind power on a calm day. In addition these islands of power enable the users to send power back to the utility and, of course, provide backup in case of a disruption of the grid.

The conceptual underpinnings of nanogrids is important – but the entire idea goes nowhere without the supporting technology. In July, Pika Energy introduced bidirectional smart battery converters. The company says that the B Link battery is capable of enabling conventional batteries – from lead acid to lithium ion – to be used for load shifting, demand response and backup applications. The B Link features 30-amp charging and an 8,000 watt capacity. It is designed to connect battery stacks to Pika’s Rebus plug-and-play 380VDC nanogrid, the company says

The idea of creating small grids at or near user sites — either nanogrids or microgrids — is compelling. Doing so will enable the vision of the modern, decentralized grid capable of seamlessly harnessing renewable energy far more feasible.

One comment on “Nanogrids and Microgrids are Keys to Decentralizing the Energy Infrastructure

  1. Nano and micro grids are sprouting up everywhere. We are seeing that when the capacity is several hundred kW, we are now able to find investors who want to own and operate such plants.

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