Distributed Energy Gains Ground With Mobile Microgrids, Vehicle-to-Grid Technology

A suite of recent policy and technology advancements is allowing for the growth of distributed energy resources (DERs) in the U.S., with innovative approaches like transportable microgrids and vehicle-to-grid programs gaining momentum.

DERs are decentralized energy production and distribution networks that typically produce renewable energy and are composed of many small units that individually generate electricity on a smaller scale. This differs from the current model in which larger power stations, be they gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, or renewable, form the hubs of a highly centralized power generation system in which individual power stations service very large areas.

“Usually located close to the communities they serve, DERs provide flexibility for customers—and they have the potential to provide value to the wholesale grid, too,” writes Utility Dive. “DERs can help to support a reliable grid and offer the benefits of cleaner generation, lower prices, and increased competition.”

Regulatory changes in the U.S. are poised to advance DERs to help states achieve emissions reduction targets and overcome limitations of aging energy infrastructure. Historically, U.S. regulations for wholesale electricity markets were developed for traditional energy resources that operate at a large scale. Because DERs generally fail to match the scale of traditional energy systems, they are often excluded from participating in energy markets. But 2021 orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) aim to advance DERs’ market participation by allowing them to meet minimum size thresholds by pooling resources, reports the New York University School of Law. FERC acted on its first compliance filings associated with the order this past June.

“As more customers and policy-makers are moving towards DER, full participation in the wholesale markets will unlock additional benefits,” Utility Dive says.

While the policy changes are starting to take effect, new DER technologies for powering microgrids are increasingly becoming available from international start-ups. In Spain, a solar energy company recently introduced a portable solar power system with a capacity of up to 6.5 kilowatts, PV Magazine says. The system features retractable panels transported by a tow-behind trailer and can be “transformed into ‘an authentic removable solar micro farm’ in less than an hour.” Among its varied potential uses, the PolarGreen Tow system can provide energy for cars, scooters or electric bikes, and can deliver energy support to homes during power outages.

Another recent development, designed by Dubai-based solar developer Enerware Sustainable Energy DMCC, offers a “mobile solar-plus-storage unit” for off-grid locations like oil and gas fields, construction sites, or disaster areas. According to Enerware, the unit, which takes two hours to set up, can be moved and redeployed every two weeks, and enables eight to 10 hours of operation with 100% renewable energy, reports PV Magazine.

Similarly, U.S.-based Sesame Solar has developed a portable nanogrid on a 20-foot trailer mounted with solar panels, battery packs, and a green hydrogen fuel cell. As a transportable, self-contained energy generation system, the nanogrid can be mobilized to disaster areas to power emergency operations without relying on diesel generators that produce air pollution, BNN Bloomberg writes.

“When something catastrophic comes through and takes all of the power down, both businesses and households are looking for connectivity,” said John Hewitt, vice president of broadband communications at EnerSys. “We’ve done ones for providing wireless access, as well as powering portable showers and toilets for first responders.”

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) programs are also showing promise to support power grids at periods of high demand or low supply.

“The idea is that electric vehicles can serve as mobile microgrids available to help supply power to the grid or reduce power consumption when the grid is stressed. They can also pitch in when the sun goes down and power to replace solar is needed,” Microgrid Knowledge explains.

“A car is a mobile storage asset; it can move to different places on the grid, where needed,” said Paul Suhey, co-founder of electric mobility company Revel—one of three companies collaborating on a V2G pilot program in Brooklyn, New York. “We are working with utilities and hardware and software partners to pilot the technology and are learning as we go.”

While similar pilots are under way in other states, the Brooklyn-based pilot is testing the vehicle-to-grid concept with three Nissan Leaf EVs that will supply power to New York energy company Con Edison. But ensuring success for these programs will ultimately require greater use of bidirectional vehicles and chargers, as well as incentives from local utilities for EV owners, said Adam Cohen, chief technology officer of NineDot Energy, another company involved in the pilot.

The promise of V2G programs has not escaped the notice of corporate interests in the U.S., where several major corporations last year petitioned Congress to support fleet electrification with funding from President Joe Biden’s 2021 Infrastructure Bill. But while the corporations acknowledge that subsidies can be a useful springboard for the EV industry, they say policies need to go further to create value streams for the industry by capitalizing on EVs’ full potential as a grid resource, writes Utility Dive.

“The automakers certainly realize these vehicles and the storage contained by the batteries are huge assets,” said David McCreadie, EV data and energy services manager at Ford Motor Co. As EV ranges grow, “these vehicles are only going to be using a fairly small portion of their battery each day for mobility. That presents a huge opportunity to leverage these vehicles as assets to the grid, and even to the customer themselves.”