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Eaton Leads Up Microgrid Summit

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Eaton’s microgrid summit in Pittsburgh focused on regional opportunities for more dependable power through a customized infrastructure. Made in PA talked with Eaton’s Director of Marketing John White about the future of microgrids and their potential impact.

Made in PA: First, what’s a microgrid? And why did Eaton host a summit about microgrids in Pittsburgh?

John White: A microgrid is a stand-alone electrical system that consists of multiple generation sources and defined power requirements that can operate independently from the utility grid. Microgrids provide a customized approach to support community or organizational energy needs for more resilient, sustainable and affordable power.

With the University of Pittsburgh, Eaton hosted the summit to bring together Pennsylvania civil, industry and business leaders to discuss how the technology can be used to achieve energy goals in our communities, businesses and institutions. Pennsylvania is leading energy innovation with rich natural gas resources, renewable energy options and innovative manufacturers focused on driving an intelligent energy approach.

Eaton has developed microgrid systems for utility, government, commercial and community customers – and has decades of power systems engineering experience in the region. We have been involved in microgrid systems for years and were on the front lines developing this technology first for use in military and Department of Energy projects. Some of the earliest microgrid systems were developed by local Eaton engineers.

Additionally, the event was hosted at Eaton’s Power Systems Experience Center in Warrendale, Pennsylvania, which includes a full-scale operational microgrid. The system there is used to show visitors how a microgrid works. The microgrid powers the lighting, HVAC and facility electrical requirements and can intelligently manage multiple energy resources to support power continuity for short and long-term utility interruptions.

Listen to John White talk about microgrids on TechVibe Radio.

MIPA: What are some of your observations about the regional opportunities around microgrids coming out of the event?

JW: Practically, microgrids are used to support resiliency. But resiliency can mean different things.There’s not a one-size fits all definition of power resiliency. For example, having access to resilient power likely means something different for a local hospital, airport or other community institution.

While resiliency can be defined in various ways, organizations typically fall within the spectrum of three goals: reliability, affordability and sustainability, but building a solution that entirely satisfies these three objectives could be cost prohibitive.

Based on what we heard at the summit, there’s an opportunity for further legislation to support the development of microgrids within Pennsylvania. Neighboring and nearby states (including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts) have programs around improving resiliency. In Pennsylvania, there’s an opportunity to better define resiliency for various stakeholders and how microgrids can support that definition of resiliency.

MIPA: How do you see microgrid systems impacting the region? Is there a community impact from microgrids?

JW: I think it’s important to think about our expectations for electricity. There’s a social contract to have ready access to power and that expectation for connectivity has never been higher. Every day, the world grows more technology-centric and more dependent upon electricity. The digital economy driven by vast data centers; growing urban centers; the Internet of Things and interconnected machines—it all puts mounting demands on an aging power grid.

Super storms have demonstrated the strain and challenges we face as a community when the power is out. Having the ability to support resiliency during a natural disaster is crucial.

Microgrids can play an important role in supporting resiliency—whether it’s during a storm or during day-to-day requirements. Further, microgrids can help businesses and communities meet sustainability goals. By incorporating solar, biofuels, combined heat and power (CHP) and other distributed energy resources, microgrids can help reduce our carbon footprint and more effectively manage these (and other) energy assets.

MIPA: What’s Eaton’s role and approach to microgrid systems?

JW: Eaton has been on the forefront of solving nearly every challenge of electrical power management for over the past 100 years. So, it’s not surprising that we’ve been involved in microgrid systems for a long time. Nearly 20 years ago, Eaton engineers began exploring mobile power system projects. Later we parlayed mobile microgrid systems into stationary ones and worked on how to manage multiple generation sources – natural gas, solar, energy storage, wind, etc. – within seamless, islanded mini grids. We’ve worked with the Department of Defense and Energy on microgrid systems to demonstrate the technology potential and have shown how those systems can work for customers in various industries and communities.

At its core, our approach to microgrid systems is modular, scalable and repeatable – it’s designed to be flexible and grow with your needs. We design systems that are able to adapt to changing generation and load assets. We’re able to maximize renewable contribution, provide utility demand response functionality and proactively manage energy assets to help maximize microgrid performance. We provide a turnkey solution of system design, installation, project management and everything in between. A core element in our approach to microgrid systems is our microgrid controller; it intelligently manages multiple sources—including renewables, energy storage, utility supply and other generation—to ensure power continuity for short and long-term utility interruptions.