Illuminating the Way Forward for On-Site Power: Exploration of a Microgrid Testing Center

June 13, 2024
Microgrids are playing a more critical role in providing energy resiliency for end-use customers in the industrial, data, commercial and military sectors. They are complex, multifaceted tools that need testing and validation at places such as Cummins’ testing facility in Minnesota.

Commercial, industrial, and mission-critical industries all contend with the pressure of keeping the lights on in the face of an aging electric grid.

According to the White House, 70% of the nation’s transmission lines are more than 25 years old, and nearly 75% of all power outages are caused by weather-related events, such as snowstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires.

Factor in the rising rate of electrification initiatives in the US, and companies are placed in an increasingly vulnerable position. They are looking to microgrids for on-site power resiliency, and those microgrids need to be tested and validated because they incorporate multiple generation resources and interconnection.

What is a Microgrid?

While most companies can’t directly impact grid resiliency, many are learning to support their own energy security by installing microgrids.

Microgrids are self-sufficient energy systems that provide electricity, heat, and/or cooling to a discrete geographic footprint, such as a college campus, hospital complex, data center, or manufacturing facility.

Microgrids can include multiple energy technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines, combined heat and power, generators, and fuel cells to produce their own power. Oftentimes, these systems also contain an energy storage system to store excess power for later use during a power emergency, such as a grid failure.

Although uniquely configurable, most microgrids can be defined by three characteristics:

  1. Local – Microgrids create energy for nearby operations. This allows the systems to be more efficient than a large, centralized grid, which can see nearly 15% of its energy dissipate in transit.
  2. Independent – Microgrids can “island” or disconnect from the central grid and operate independently of power operations.
  3. Intelligent – A microgrid’s sophistication lies within the microgrid controller, which operates as the central brain to manage all of the microgrid’s components, including the generators, batteries, and nearby operational energy systems.

What is a Microgrid Testing Center?

While microgrids provide a host of benefits for energy reliability, they can be complex and challenging systems to properly design, install, and manage. They also typically represent a significant investment that leaves little room for error.

A company must consider its equipment needs, such as energy generation method, battery energy storage requirements, and distribution system, as well as the impact of the microgrid’s environment on the system’s efficiency. For example, a microgrid utilizing solar would not be as effective in the Alaskan tundra as in a Nevada desert.

This is where microgrid testing centers offer a solution.

Microgrid testing centers are controlled environments that can configure a mock microgrid system and test its operational efficiency under any programmed conditions. This allows companies to understand what setup and energy generation methods would work best under their environmental conditions and with consideration to energy reliability needs.

Through this testing, when a business designs and installs its own microgrid system, it will already understand what equipment and infrastructure are required to secure its operations during a grid failure.

The Power Integration Center

One such testing center is located in America’s heartland at Cummins’ headquarters in Fridley, Minnesota. Known as the Power Integration Center (PIC), the 20,000-square-foot lab is one of the largest and most configurable microgrid testing facilities in the world. Here companies can design a unique microgrid system, and Cummins engineers will run a variety of tests under simulated conditions to understand the system’s operational efficiency in a zero-risk environment.

“The needs of our customers are ever evolving, and there’s a heightened focus on dependable, flexible, economically efficient microgrid solutions,” said Corey Bergendahl, Engineering Manager at the Cummins PIC. “The PIC is our dedication to powering a cleaner future. This facility allows us to lead our customers through their decarbonization journeys, directly tying into our own Destination Zero strategy.”

Take an In-depth Look at the Cummins PIC Microgrid Testing Center

The facility includes an outdoor test area, which provides space to test gensets, battery energy storage systems, hydrogen fuel cells, electrolyzers, and electric vehicle chargers. The PIC also has utility feeds, distribution switchgear, bi-directional inverters, battery simulators, rooftop solar arrays, and solar simulators – which can simulate solar conditions to accurately portray how solar generation would affect microgrid efficiency for any specific US region.

“It’s really a plug-and-play architecture that allows you to bring in these different sources to coexist very quickly,” said Gary Johansen, VP of Power Systems Engineering at Cummins. “Our customers are placing an even higher value on flexible and well-integrated solutions, and this center will help us speed up the time it takes to deliver these new solutions.”

Finally, the facility houses an engineering control room. Here, customers and Cummins engineers can visually see the results of the microgrid configuration displayed in real-time. The engineers can also input data that allows the system to operate as if under an energy event, such as extreme weather or grid failure.

All of these resources serve to educate clients on the potential of microgrids and optimize a unique system to serve their individual needs in an environment that allows for a safe trial-and-error process.

The Future of Microgrids

The ramp-up in microgrid deployment is already underway. According to Wood Mackenzie, while there are less than 1,000 operational microgrids in the US, more than 4,300 microgrid projects are currently either in the planning stages or under construction. This number is expected to increase as more federal and state funding becomes available and market prices are slowly driven down.

Market research also projects that microgrids will become a $87.8 billion market by the end of 2029, with North American and Asia Pacific regions experiencing the highest growth in microgrid deployment. Factors driving this increase include a higher rate of rural electrification, especially in India and Malaysia, and the increased risk of power outages.

Finally, microgrid deployment is being positively impacted by the growing symbiotic relationship between this technology and digitalization. As more tools, such as data analytics, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence, are utilized in tandem with microgrids, companies will begin seeing a stronger business case for microgrid installation through increased cost savings, sustainability, and reliability while securing business operations.

“Over time, there is a transition – there is a bridge, and then there is net zero. What the needs are of today will continue to shift, especially considering what utilities can provide and how we may need to rely on different assets,” said Joshua Dahms, Power Gen Strategy and Product Planning Director at Cummins.

About the Author

Breanna Sandridge, Senior Editor

Breanna Sandridge is senior editor for EnergyTech and Microgrid Knowledge, both part of the energy group at Endeavor Business Media.

Prior to that, Breanna was managing editor for Machinery Lubrication and Reliable Plant magazines, both part of Noria Corp. She has two years experience covering the industrial sector.

She also is a 2021 graduate of Northeastern State University (Oklahoma) with a Bachelor's in English.