Now that the MIT Energy Initiative has its sights on improving microgrids, the concept could expand beyond its current suite of the must-have business clientele to include a broader swath of the corporate community. The university’s so-called Heila IQ is the central nervous system that would make onsite energy distribution on corporate campuses within reach and, by extension, would improve the lots for wind, solar and geothermal power — the fuels that thrive on such distributed systems.
Right now, localized microgrids are mostly the domains of military bases, hospitals and software makers — the types of businesses that can’t even afford a momentary lapse of electricity. So, they need to generate their own juice and to distribute those electrons through their own network. They can be the primary means of distribution or they can kick on when the central grid goes down. Either way, they provide some assurances that big weather events can’t knock out power to at least those businesses that are set up as “islands.” The hope, though, is that they can save whole cities — like New York, during a Superstorm Sandy-type event.
MIT says that the technology, presented as part of a contest set up by the university, makes microgrid networks more efficient and easier to own and operate. By simplifying microgrids, Heila aims to boost their adoption worldwide, said team member John Donnal, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science.
“A big problem we’ve seen in microgrids is, when you buy them, you can’t get them to work together,” Donnal said, in a release. “Now you, as a customer, can go out and find the best industry player to get the [microgrid] equipment, and you get Heila to get them to all talk to each other. And when you can make microgrids that easy, you can then integrate renewables at a much higher rate.”
In 2014, the global microgrid market created $4.3 billion in revenues — a figure that could reach $36 billion by 2020, according to a 2015 report by Navigant Research, a market research and consulting firm.
Because microgrids are in the early stages of development, there are no standards set. Some high-powered power engineering is therefore required. The market for such expertise is still wide open, though, with not just utilities going after potential clients but also high-tech start ups.
But what makes the MIT effort uncommon, the university says, is that its proprietary software can link to the cloud, enabling microgrid managers to read and assess the data in the aggregate. Managers can then interpret the information and improve the performance of their systems by, for example, telling a battery when to release energy, the school says.
“You can deploy apps on your microgrid in the same (way) that you look at apps on your phone, but for things like [microgrid] management and diagnostics,” Donnal said.