Blackouts triggered by extreme weather events this year such as a deep freeze in Texas, a severe drought in California, and Hurricane Ida in Louisiana have underscored the importance of backup power planning for large commercial and industrial energy consumers.
“The grid continues to be stressed from increased demand, an aging infrastructure, the growing adoption of electric transportation, and adoption of renewables,” Allan Schurr, chief commercial officer of microgrid specialist Enchanted Rock, told EnergyTech. “These issues are exacerbated as we’re also witnessing an increase in long-term outages over the past decade from extreme weather events and cyber threats. As a result, we see critical infrastructure across various industries prioritize power resiliency along with their sustainability strategy.”
Enchanted Rock, which recently formed a natural gas generator and control system alliance with Generac Power Systems, Inc., is seeing a sharp increase in business interest in microgrids. For example, Schurr noted that his company experienced a 300% spike in inquiries for its services after Winter Storm Uri left millions of Texans without power.
What should a business’ backup power plan include? Schurr answered that question, along with others, in his recent conversation with EnergyTech. Read on for excerpts from the discussion.
EnergyTech: If a business decides to develop a back-up power plan, where should it begin the process?
Allan Schurr: When customers come to us, they have obviously decided that power resiliency is a priority. We help them understand the options available to them by asking some key questions. How many outages do you experience and how long are the outages? What happens when the power goes out – can you quantify that loss to your business? What are your sustainability goals? There are a variety of technologies available – some well-established and some emerging – that can be challenging to navigate. It is critical to select a partner that has proven experience in various technologies to compare the pros and cons of each approach and how these operational differences align with your organizational goals and strategy.
ET: What are the key components of a back-up power plan for commercial and industrial energy users?
Schurr: Prioritize resiliency along with sustainability – renewables and storage are key to the energy transition, but unfortunately the sun is not always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing. Batteries have a limited 4-6 window, and the newer longer life batteries are cost and space prohibitive for the majority of companies we meet.
Select a hybrid approach that works for your particular business needs and sustainability goals – find a trusted, knowledgeable partner who can work with you based on budget, footprint, and sustainability aspirations. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy, which is why so many companies are turning to hybrid microgrids. Future-proof your plan – align with your sustainability goals and select a strategy that grows with you and considers emerging technologies as they become available.
Consider resiliency as a service – the good news is that resiliency does not always require a huge capital expense if you’re not able to go there. As an example, our dual-purpose microgrids provide backup resiliency when needed and provide grid support services when not being used. Our microgrids synchronize to the grid, providing grid support services during high demand when not running in a backup capacity. This not only benefits the community, but the additional revenue allows us to offset the cost of the asset, which greatly reduces the cost to the customer. It’s truly a win-win for the customer and surrounding community.
ET: What are some considerations for funding and executing the plan?
Schurr: Consider what technologies will “grow” with you in the future. Consider potential hidden costs in terms of operations and maintenance, in terms of expense, time and internal resources needed. Consider worst-case-scenario outages. Are you using a reliable energy source that can provide uninterrupted power if the outage lasts for days, or if you run out of local onsite fuel and the roads are impassible? Also, consider some of the opportunity costs around limitation of run hours with diesel and explore options where all OPEX expenses can be outsourced (e.g., zero O&M costs or load-banking requirements).
Lastly, consider the resiliency as a service model where the benefits of managed power resiliency are provided by a firm specializing in building, owning, and operating the solution. The cost of such services, especially from providers that take the risk of operating the system to provide local resiliency AND grid support services, is more cost-effective that traditional equipment purchases and O&M contracts.
ET: What are some technological innovations and other developments that have made back-up power tangible for more businesses?
Schurr: While microgrids have been around for some time to address local power resiliency, they have come a long way. No longer just a “dumb” backup generator that you turn on when you need it, they are now also being recognized for their ability to supplement grid capacity during times of high demand, and are supported by sophisticated software platforms that manage second-by-second to achieve hyper-resiliency at an affordable cost.
Microgrids are smart assets, leveraging data analytics to automatically operate when needed without human intervention. Network operations centers continuously monitor performance, and intelligent software can mine data for operational patterns and respond programmatically and efficiently. More than just a collection of energy resources, a microgrid can island and operate autonomously carrying full power load for a local facility when the power is down – and for extended periods of time. Microgrids also complement the broader grid by supplementing grid capacity during times of high demand or intermittent supply. They can leverage cleaner energy fuel sources such as natural gas or renewable natural gas to provide the most reliable resiliency and allow for a carbon-neutral solution. Lastly, innovative firms have found a way to integrate ultra-clean emissions engines with grid stability services to reduce underlying cost for resiliency, while providing the required stability service to accelerate further renewables adoption in the grid.
Enchanted Rock has reinvented how organizations ensure power resiliency for their operations with fully managed ultra-clean microgrids, support services, and flexible pricing options designed for fast, simple, and worry-free protection from extended grid outages. High availability solutions, backed by skilled personnel and advanced systems, result in low-risk, predictable resiliency.
Enchanted Rock’s systems can run independently in island mode for days to weeks or longer, something other options simply cannot do alone. Our managed microgrids integrate seamlessly with renewables and other existing technologies to optimize based on requirements for emissions, carbon footprint, cost performance, and available space.
ET: In the COVID era, we’re hearing about supply-chain issues across various industries. Where are supply-chain bottlenecks most evident with orders for microgrid equipment, how are manufacturers addressing them, and what advice would you offer business owners seeking to install backup power?
Schurr: We’ve all witnessed the effects of COVID on critical infrastructure and the need for uninterrupted business services for the well-being of the community. Think about the explosive demand on the data center industry as workforces went remote, the importance of the grocery distribution and supply chain, the obvious critical role of hospitals and senior living facilities, and even the pharmaceutical industry in terms of vaccine production and distribution.
Companies looking for future power resiliency solutions should start in advance and work with providers that have access to local production and parts. Fortunately, we have not seen any significant bottlenecks in supply chain. Enchanted Rock has intentionally standardized its platform to have one unit that’s highly modular with parts/components that are produced in large quantities and are more readily available than more specialized equipment. We also maintain ample inventory in advance of projects
To further improve our manufacturing capacity, Enchanted Rock has recently formed a partnership with Generac to enhance access to supply and support our commercial and industrial customers growth.
ET: What major trends do you envision for commercial and industrial back-up power in the next few years?
Schurr: Increasing renewable energy connected to the grid, paired with the growing electrification of everything, and more extreme weather has exponentially increased the need for power resiliency. Our prediction is more and more companies and utilities will conclude back-up power is no longer a nice to have but an imperative to operations.
We are also seeing a transition from traditional fuel sources, like diesel, due to limited reliability/run time availability and higher emissions – to lower-carbon or negative-carbon resiliency solutions using natural gas or renewable natural gas – to help further their energy transition and maintain business resiliency. Natural gas microgrids are at the intersection point of ultra-clean, more sustainable solutions, while providing a lower-cost alternative to diesel that further supports local communities through grid stability.
Enchanted Rock remotely monitors and troubleshoots our assets and is responsible for the maintenance and operations of our resiliency microgrids, allowing customers to focus on their core business. Acting as the nerve center for every active Enchanted Rock microgrid installation in every market, is the Enchanted Rock Microgrid Network Operations Center (mNOC). The mNOC deploys proprietary software and integrated processes and technologies that together ensure worry-free, long-duration, reliable power to customers and help mNOC operators identify and address issues before they become problems.
A variety of sophisticated, quick response microgrid support activities take place under the supervision of energy engineers and trading experts, including:
- Monitoring weather and stability of the electric power grid
- Autonomous activation of microgrids during loss of utility voltage
- Monitoring and diagnosis of all comms and equipment installations in the field
- Maintenance management and resource optimization
- Upgrade of program management
- Monitoring and forecasting of electricity market conditions
- Optimized dispatch for excess energy sales.