The POWER Interview: Schneider Electric's New Microgrids Leader Plans for the Future

The use of microgrids to produce a reliable and resilient supply of power continues to grow, with several companies delivering new and innovative technologies to provide electricity for a growing number of industries.

Microgrids have always been front and center at POWER’s Distributed Energy Conference (DEC), with the event featuring case studies over the past few years centered on installations at seaports, military bases, resorts, hotels, hospitals, remote communities, and government complexes, among other sites.

Schneider Electric was a participant in the first DEC event in 2018, and the company has continued to be a leader in the microgrid space, designing systems to integrate on-site renewable energy such as solar and wind, along with energy storage. Jana Gerber, who recently took on the role as Schneider’s President, Microgrid North America, is now responsible for leading a group that helps support customers wanting reliable and resilient power, along with a path to achieving sustainability goals.

Jana Gerber

Gerber responded to questions from POWER about the company’s ongoing microgrid efforts, and what she sees as the future for technologies in a fast-growing sector for power generation.

POWER: What technologies do you find most interesting when it comes to microgrids?

Gerber: Digital software solutions, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning are utilized to best optimize energy use. Advancement of distributed energy resources (DER) and generating assets—inclusive of energy storage, micro-nuclear, and hydrogen.

POWER: What do you see as the future of microgrids (sites, technologies, etc.)?

Gerber: (The following bullet points):

  • Collaboration with utility: currently a very painful and long process.
  • Buildings and campuses adopting “plug and play” microgrids.
  • Building and campus digital inoperability with the grid with the support of microgrids and other demand response software. The Dept. of Energy (DOE) identifies these as Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings (GEBs).
  • Electric fleets playing a major part in microgrids. The upgrade in infrastructure will help the U.S. transition to being more sustainable and resilient.

POWER: Schneider Electric has been a leader in the microgrid space—what are some things the company is working on in terms of innovation for microgrids?

Gerber: Schneider Electric has available a commercial financing model called Energy-as-a-Service, or EaaS, for microgrids—allowing organizations, businesses, and governments to access energy management systems without the upfront cost. This allows facility managers to avoid capital expenditures like equipment cost and instead pay for the ongoing service Schneider provides, making microgrid adoption easier and more feasible than ever before.

Schneider Electric, in partnership with The Carlyle Group, has created AlphaStruxure, a joint venture company providing EaaS capabilities to microgrids across the U.S.. Some of the company’s most notable features come through their Strategic Capital & Contract Structuring that enables flexible capital approaches to financing, as well as their On & Off-site Supply, which enables on-site generation of clean power with up to $30 billion to spend under Schneider management.

Schneider Electric also deploys ECCs, or “Energy Control Centers” as a means of collecting, loading, and analyzing real-time source data for infrastructures like medical facilities, universities, offices, shopping complexes, resorts, communities and more. The ECC uses advanced algorithms in order to assess the status of the available power sources, as well as analyze load priority and energy requirements to determine when and what DERs (distributed energy resources) to engage.

Schneider Electric uses cloud-based software for microgrid management as well. Called the EcoStruxure Microgrid Advisor, the software enables facility operators and managers to dynamically control on-site DER and automate the microgrid’s energy consumption, production and storage. The user interface is web-based and provides a seamless UI/UX platform that is easy to navigate and analyze.

POWER: What role can microgrids play in electrification?

Gerber: Microgrids can be a powerful supplementary or primary distributed energy provider for all kinds of structures, projects, and buildings, which makes them a key candidate for electrifying architecture through energy storage.

As more businesses and municipalities are electrifying their fleets, microgrids play an important role in understanding the feasibility and installation of electrical infrastructure that will power, house, and coordinate fleet logistics. It is very important for planners to assess the currently existing infrastructure for the fleets, get input from neighboring utilities, and cybersecure the digital operations that will interact with fleet navigation and movement. Microgrids provide a scalable, resilient, and reliable option for clean, renewable energy storage for fleets—in addition to the digital solutions microgrids can provide that can manage fleet energy needs from end-to-end.

Solutions like EcoStruxure Microgrid Advisor digitally connect to microgrids and can monitor, control, and manage the distributed energy resources in the microgrid. The software provides easy-to-install turnkey solutions secured by local area network IT ASDL lines and conducts cyber-secure testing to ensure the solution and its data are kept safe. EcoStruxure Microgrid Advisor also contributes to the electrification of the microgrid structure by providing the web-based interfaces managers can use to optimize solar, wind, and storage power. They can take advantage of flexible controller interfaces for DERs, thus facilitating dynamic use of on-site energy consumption and electric power distribution.

These kinds of solutions help electrify different structures by establishing a digital and interconnected foundation for their energy needs. Renewable energy harvested on or near the building can be redistributed by the microgrids to other structures connected to the architecture, providing energy pathways and quick response times to structures who need it. Retrofitting structures with electrified infrastructure is most efficient when microgrids provide sustainable, resilient support.

POWER: Can microgrids be part of a decarbonization strategy?

Gerber: Microgrids can support a plethora of distributed energy options sourced from net-zero energy resources, and electrify buildings or structures with that energy.

The Fox Cities Environmental Learning Center at Bubolz Nature Preserve (in Wisconsin; the project was awarded POWER’s first Distributed Energy Award in 2018) serves as an example of a decarbonized, clean energy microgrid project. The energy provided here comes in five forms of distributed energy sources, simultaneously lowering energy costs and providing net-zero carbon energy consumption across 700 acres.

Decarbonization projects with microgrids require time and planning, but the possibilities are endless. Microgrids equipped with lithium-ion storage batteries and powerful solar photovoltaics can both generate and store zero-carbon energy, and decarbonize the profile of the structure it services.

POWER: What type of government support is needed to expand microgrid adoption?

Gerber: Governments who can address legislation and reduce the number of roadblocks that currently stand in the way of greater microgrid adoption are the ones whose support will make the greatest impact.

Utilities provide most of the energy needs for communities and structures connected to the grid, but as microgrid adoption expands, laws that regulate grid connections, regional influence/ownership, and communication regarding energy with utilities need to be addressed. Microgrid expansion can be slowed by utility influence because legacy legislation makes the red tape hard to maneuver, or gives utilities full power over certain areas of the grid.

POWER: Are there industries that could benefit from microgrids that are not currently using them?

Gerber: Many industries could not only benefit but thrive from expanded microgrid adoption. Public facilities and government centers can use microgrids as a resilient source of power in the event of a disaster or for sustainable, clean energy consumption during normal operating hours.

The agricultural industry could also see significant energy efficiency improvements upon the adoption of microgrids, and one example that fits this context is Fifth Season’s indoor vertical farm. Powered by an islandable microgrid, the Fifth Season indoor farm uses zero pesticides, 95% less water, and net-zero carbon DERs after installing their microgrid from Schneider Electric—of which they look to produce 500,000 pounds of fresh produce in their first operable year. Fifth Season’s microgrid even allows the indoor farm to continue full operations in the event of a  blackout—using clean energy storage from the microgrid to keep crops healthy and the power online.

Warehouses and supply chain facilities can use microgrids to regulate and supply the energy needs of their storage facilities, regulating temperatures through advanced digital solutions or redistributing energy throughout the grid to structures that need them most.

In the manufacturing sector, microgrids can be used to provide zero-carbon, resilient, digital energy to help businesses achieve their sustainability objectives. Bimbo Bakeries USA in Horsham, Pennsylvania, partnered with GreenStruxure to establish a multi-site energy conservation plan facilitated through the use of a local microgrid, in which the microgrid will deliver peak demand management and optimized use of energy from the grid and its on-site system for the best energy results.

Municipalities benefit from microgrids as a resilient, reliable source of backup power in the event of a natural disaster or blackout, as well as a clean source of renewable energy for energy operations. Montgomery County in Maryland has partnered with Schneider Electric to do just that—providing local government buildings and infrastructure with reliable, solar voltaic power and operational integrity, which is now being extended to the county’s newest electric fleet of busses.

Critical facilities, like the healthcare industry, can leverage microgrids as a backup power source to ensure power resiliency, because lives depend on it. Backed by control software, hospitals gain a full solution to harvest, monitor, and redistribute renewable energy on-site using microgrids and accompanying photovoltaics. Microgrids have a proven record of accomplishment of providing backup power where it is needed most, while cutting costs and energy waste from normal energy operations.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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