Microgrids for buildings
As Australia swelters in the now annual ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ heatwave, Australians are cranking up their air-conditioning units to stay cool. In January this year, Australia was home to all 15 of the world’s hottest temperatures. This extra demand for energy puts undue pressure on the grid, as well as racking up significant power bills. In worse-case scenarios, this can lead to load shedding or even state-wide blackouts.
Because of this constant threat, energy prices and reliability of the grid remain top of mind. To reassure citizens that climate change and energy policy are being taken seriously, the federal government needs to develop a strategy that provides resilience and emphasises the need for investment in smart energy technologies. While the first instinct is often to think bigger, the answer for energy stability and efficiency actually lies in thinking much smaller.
Microgrids have proven to be a viable option to strengthen the electrical grid and serve communities when disaster strikes. Making the most of connected sensors and other Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, microgrids have a positive impact on communities where infrastructure is lacking — or non-existent — by allowing the creation of power grids with a customised energy infrastructure based on the community’s needs. In addition, for economies like Australia — where electrical infrastructure is in place, but ageing — new technologies connected by microgrids can transform legacy infrastructure into a resilient power grid that offers reliable access to energy, even when extreme weather hits. Furthermore, since most modern microgrids embrace renewable energy and improve flexibility, they provide value to both consumers and the grid between storms in the form of low-cost clean energy and load management.
By establishing an energy system that is resilient, reliable, sustainable, predictable and digital, we remove the barriers from all our critical systems and enable our businesses and communities to reach their full potential. Microgrid adoption is a decision we cannot afford to pass on as we fortify our future for the new energy landscape.
A microgrid is a local electrical distribution system with controlled loads and distributed energy resources that operate in a coordinated way to provide one or more of the following capabilities: to manage energy consumption on site, to provide services to the grid or to increase the resiliency of the network.
A microgrid contains an integrated automation system, which enables smart microgrid control; energy use optimisation; power and heat demand response; and energy storage. This intelligent grid often capitalises on renewable energies, such as solar and wind.
The building management opportunity
Microgrids, by managing energy and diverse low-carbon resources, can provide cheap, clean, reliable power to those within it. Consequently, this is an increasingly attractive option when retrofitting buildings. Other benefits of microgrid solutions include the following:
- The technology enables coordination of these resources and the building management systems to deliver energy savings and reduce operational expenses.
- Facilities have an added layer of transparency and level of control over their operations and day-to-day power usage.
- Buildings have an increased energy reliability. For example, in the case of a natural disaster such as a storm, bushfire or heatwave, a microgrid can protect a building from the effects of wholesale market demand spikes ensuring power consistency.
- A microgrid is a green solution that places businesses at the forefront of sustainable practice.
Most of these building management systems come equipped with smart panels that are 24/7 connected to the internet. Moreover, microgrids help by managing power quality to all parts of the building and will enhance operational efficiency and assist in saving electricity. Most of the buildings in smart cities will come equipped with solar panels, which will help them in producing the required electricity for its operations and simultaneously help in decreasing their carbon footprint.
In Finland, global discount supermarket chain Lidl is constructing a world-first distribution centre operating on 100% renewable energy. A smart microgrid control solution will be used to monitor and control the building and is expected to provide energy savings of over 50%. Closer to home, in South Australia, the SA Produce Market has developed a microgrid using solar, battery storage and backup diesel generation to both manage energy cost and energy security. In the event of any future blackout, they will be able to operate as an island from the rest of the electricity grid.
The future of microgrids
As visibility of how microgrids can supplement current power infrastructure increases, the conversation around how to implement microgrids — and pay for them — has naturally followed.
Energy as a service (EaaS) is a business model that is disrupting the space, empowering consumers to embrace microgrids across Australia. EaaS enables consumers and communities to take advantage of energy resilience, sustainability and cost that is tailored to their unique objectives without requiring them to operate a utility or break their budget.
For example, communities that need to significantly upgrade existing electrical infrastructure while configuring their system to integrate renewable, on-site distributed energy can now do so without the lingering concern of surpassing their energy or capital construction budget. This allows end users to be more creative and strategic with the way that they manage their energy. Furthermore, EaaS allows consumers to transfer technical, regulatory and operational risks to counterparts that are more prepared to mitigate them without giving up governance rights.
As with the Mornington Peninsula Shire in Victoria, which has launched a Community Grid Project to support local electricity needs and avoid a $30 million transmission line. Local residents and businesses are driving this initiative and will be seeing the benefits for years to come.
Looking to the future, a web of microgrids across a city can support the wider network of energy supply. At times of peak demand, utilities can call on electricity stored in microgrids’ batteries or use their generators to provide a boost of power. If this happens, these hybrid microgrids will make the existing grid far more resilient.
The journey to better resilience in the face of the increasingly severe impact of climate change requires us to think differently about energy. Software, analytics and the decentralised control of digitised equipment helps make the most of the physical infrastructure that we have in place, achieving resilience while minimising redundancy. Innovative business models like EaaS unlock the ability to bring that technology to bear today — before we feel the impact of the next storm.
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