Looking at the Big Picture:

Hybrid Energy Innovations 2015

By Jesse Miller

As home solar installations have skyrocketed in popularity, to the average American putting solar on their roof for the first time like me, things look pretty easy. Solar panels go on the house, energy is generated into the grid, and your utility bills go down. It’s that simple. So now we can just multiply this process across 100 million households and the country will be 100% green, right? Not so simple.

At the 2015 Hybrid Energy Innovations conference in lower Manhattan, renewable energy and micro-grid experts from around the world gathered to discuss the next, and steps to a renewable energy future. The starting place is micro-grids.

For those not familiar with the term, a micro-grid refers to an independent power grid that can be disconnected from the main grid. As opposed to today’s typical solar adopter who feeds energy into the existing utility owned grid, a micro-grid adopter can go completely “off the grid”. But to do so they need their own start-to-finish system in order to take energy generated from solar, wind, and perhaps battery storage or traditional diesel generators, and then convert, combine, and regulate that energy into what they use when they turn on the lights.

For a lot of people, going “completely off the grid” may sounds like an unnecessary, perhaps excessive step to take, like what that guy buying all the canned food, guns, and bottled water might want do. But in fact, micro-grids are much more prevalent than one might imagine. Not only do they play a central role in the hottest potential solar markets today, but they also stand to play a key role in bringing residential solar to higher levels of adoption in places like NY and CA.

The first hot market for on renewable micro-grids is in resilient energy. In a presentation on solar energy battery storage by Lewis Milford of the Clean Energy Group, Milford highlighted large post-hurricane Sandy investments from NY, NJ, CN, and MA to build energy independent micro-grid communities, in order to bolster energy resiliency. Additional presentations from the National Guard and the Office of Naval Research highlighted the tremendous need for resilient, independent energy grids in military and other critical infrastructure.

The second hot market is remote or undeveloped locations – places with weak or no access to established energy infrastructure. This market encompasses Africa, India and South Asia, South America, Alaska and parts of Canada, and islands all around the world. It is the majority of earth’s population, often living in places with fast growing energy demand and few established suppliers. No longer do they need to transport fuel from thousands of miles away through dangerous terrain, instead they can get power through their own on-site renewable powered micro-grid at a much more competitive per KWH price.

In both of these hot markets, hybrid energy is key. The systems cannot rely on Con-Edison to help them out on cloudy days with no solar generation. Instead they need comprehensive systems with multiple power sources, energy storage technology, and high tech control systems that can maximize efficiency while ensuring the lights stay on 24 hours a day 365 days per year. David Droz from Urban Green Energy drove the point home in a presentation on solar/wind hybrids, explaining how systems that combine solar and wind power require up to 60% less reserve battery capacity to ensure resiliency when compared with solar systems alone.

For many readers the big question may be, if you don’t live in rural India, or if you are not highly concerned about the next hurricane blackout, then what can micro-grid hybrid energy systems do for you?

Conference sponsor Innovus Power connected the dots during their presentation. Innovus Power is a company that specializes in equipment and technology used to connect distributed renewable power sources like solar and wind into grids with traditional power generators. Those are the type of grids the average Americans sees every day -- the ones that connect power plant generators to your house, and at the same time suck in the energy from your solar panels. The problem is, these city grids are not built to handle solar and wind energy coming in. As the percentage of renewable energy input increases, the grids become more and more unstable, and require greater and greater investments to prevent failure. The result is that if NYC wants achieve its goal of 80% renewable energy by 2050, we will need an entirely different grid.

The experts at the Hybrid Energy Innovations conference are fast pioneering solutions. As everything from converters and controls systems, to batteries and storage devices, to Innovus Power’s variable speed generators, become more efficient and more affordable, going “off the grid” is becoming more and more economic. These innovations are bringing us closer to a day when renewable energy micro-grids will not only power remote Alaskan villages but also New York City.