The EnergyTech Mission Critical Microgrid Series Part 3: From War Zones to Emergency Rooms

May 4, 2022
Don Wingate, vice president of utility and microgrid solutions at Schneider Electric, stressed the importance of bringing on-site power to sites under duress all over the world. This stretches from commercial purposes to meeting basic human needs

(Editor’s Note: This is one of a three-part EnergyTech series on Mission Critical Microgrids. See links to the other reports at the bottom of this story).

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From port of call to place of critical medical care or even at the edges of a war zone, microgrids are expanding the definition of energy security.

In a conversation with EnergyTech, Don Wingate, vice president of utility and microgrid solutions at Schneider Electric, stressed the importance of bringing on-site power to sites under duress all over the world. This stretches from commercial purposes to resiliency to simply meeting a basic human need.

And scale doesn’t matter.

“You don’t have to big and brawny to get things done for people,” Wingate pointed out.

Schneider Electric and other companies are moving more nimbly to be part of humanitarian efforts such as the Footprint Project. Footprint is a global, non-profit effort to help communities under attack, whether from climate events, such as Hurricane Ida, or war zones such as Ukraine.

“We’ve helped put stuff together for Ukraine, providing energy solutions,” Wingate said.

Call it a “mini microgrid,” he added. “Where we have solar on a trailer and put a little battery and inverter on it. It’s assembled relatively quickly and deployed actively.”

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Beyond the philanthropic effort, Schneider has been one of the commercial leaders in microgrid deployment and “energy as a service,” providing the capital to build projects up front and giving customers an installment plan to meet their sustainability and energy resiliency goals.

Some of those projects previously could take 2-3 years or so to design, build, complete and commission. Things need to move faster, he noted.

“We’ve learned how to make our products better, make them more repeatable,” Wingate said.

These modular, factory-scale type solutions can be ready faster than specially designed pieces of the microgrid puzzle. The COVID pandemic also spurred technological leaps in project deployment even when a travel ban is in effect.

For example, Schneider and partners completed a solar microgrid in Hawaii during the 2020-21 nadir of the coronavirus. Sending an engineer over the Pacific to oversee commissioning in person was impossible, but online communications and a local electrician on-site make it possible.

“We were able to have the internet connection to our microgrid,” Wingate recalled. “We configured, remotely, a microgrid. I think it was the first time it had ever been done.”

The COVID-19 crisis and hard stop on workforce interaction also exposed supply chain challenges that reverberate in the economy even today. One of Schneider’s most important current projects is storage and microgrid work at the Port of Long Beach, California, one of the busiest cargo moving sites in the world.

One way to clean it up, emissions-wise, is to rethink digitalization and on-site power output. That’s exactly what’s happening at the Port of Long Beach, where incoming vessels soon will be able to plug into shore power that is much less pollutive than the traditional diesel suppy.

The project to build a microgrid for the Port’s control center is ongoing, but the site will also incorporate solar and a mobile battery energy storage system.

“By having new technology you can take a storage system and move it where it needs to be,” Wingate said. “With a PSPS (public safety power shutoff by utilities during times of greater wildfire danger) you can move battery to different tenants of that port.”

The health care industry also is becoming an emerging market for microgrid suppliers such as Schneider Electric. Hospitals have always maintained a generator—usually diesel-powered and sometimes natural gas—on site for the backup resource, but the medical industry is increasingly trying to decarbonize same as other sectors.

The main utility grid is certainly not going away, and will remain as key supplier of electricity to health care facilities. The backup, in the event of an outage, was the diesel generator, but that order of necessity may be changing.

“By adding microgrid technology, it provides benefits to the entire hospital, not just the operating room (which usually directly connected to the generator),” Wingate said.

“You have the grid, then the microgrid and, as a last resort, the diesel generator, for that’s the most polluting,” he added.

Microgrid firms are talking with the central purchasing divisions within health care entities to discuss energy as a service offerings. They desire to join the energy transition to greater sustainability in resourcing while also being disciplined on upfront costs. Upfront cost, however, is an inhibitor.

Those companies, regardless of sector, are feeling pressure from investors and shareholders on the ESG (environmental social and governance) issues. Many are watching the impacts of climate change and fearing that enough won’t be done to mitigate rising temperatures by the 2050 goal dates of sustainability and net-zero carbon advocates.

“We’re running out of time,” Wingate warned. “There is an urgency. And there’s not a technological reason why it can’t de bone. The problem is the will.”

Read the rest of our EnergyTech Mission Critical Microgrids focused on Airport Energy Security.

The Pittsburgh International Airport Microgrid

The Redwood Coast Airport and Coast Guard Air Sector Microgrid

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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 14-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]).