By George Harvey
The Brattleboro, Vermont Energy Committee recently formed an Integrated Energy Systems subcommittee with the purpose of investigating such solutions as microgrids and the technologies that might be used with them. A microgrid is a system that has its own generating and storage capacity, with a potential to operate independently of the grid, if necessary. It might be a single building, a neighborhood, or an entire community.
Kirk Shields, Director of Business Development (Energy Innovation) at Green Mountain Power (GMP), came down from Rutland to share the utility’s ideas with the committee. Perhaps the most striking thing about the presentation was learning that Green Mountain Power was still in the rather early stages of developing a new business plan that will include establishing new relationships with communities and community solutions. We might hope this means we have the opportunity to provide input for that plan.
GMP has been working with communities to develop new solutions. The most noted example is Rutland, which GMP is turning into the “Solar Capitol of the Northeast.” Solar arrays have been installed under different ownership schemes, clearly with some view to finding what people’s preferences are and what options work well. Additionally, individual homes have been given deep energy retrofits, including insulation, sealing, more efficient appliances, heat pumps, and solar panels.
We wondered aloud how a utility can make a living by helping people use less of what they are selling. Shields told us that there are many services and products GMP can sell, and they are not worried as they move into a new business paradigm. In fact, he said, that is what they are currently researching for their future.
There clearly is a lot to learn. For example, he told us about storing thermal energy of a type we had never known about. GMP has actually installed a system in one building that uses electric power at night, when rates are low, to heat a thermal mass that in turn has its heat transferred to the building through the day. “This can help balance the grid,” he said. “If we can do that, we can profit from the increased stability.”
GMP seems interested in being part of community, business, and organizational solutions, without much prejudice about what they may be. “Our engineers will tell us if they think an idea is impractical or impossible,” Shields explained. That said, they are pretty much open to any ideas that make sense for all parties.
Shields mentioned four important points about such systems:
1. It is important to consider how the customer is impacted. Any noticeable change in service should be an improvement. In fact, a microgrid in Rutland allows the customer to be an active or passive participant, or not to participate and have no noticeable change in service
2. Costs have to be taken into account. When we transition to renewable, distributed power, we should expect to save money in the process. That is the experience in most places.
3. Reliability is an important issue. Microgrids operating in a distributed system should be considerably more reliable than the grid to which it is attached. This is because the microgrid should have both generating capacity and storage. This is one of the attractions of the community microgrid.
4. It is clear that the legacy business model, the model nearly all utilities use today, is not sustainable. This means it is imperative that new ones be developed. GMP has taken a lead in developing those models.
We are clearly only at the beginning of the process of establishing a new paradigm and it is exciting to have the opportunity to participate and contribute.