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The Plug & Play DER Challenge: A peek at the next industry game changer rolling out at SPI

I was recently talking with a utility executive about a project — currently in the planning stages — that would provide an interoperability framework for the components of a microgrid. To give me a simple explanation of the technology, he asked me a question — Do you know how the USB port on your laptop works?

Like the vast majority of people who are not computer geeks, I answered, no. I only know that whatever I plug into it — a thumb drive, mouse, camera or cell phone — it works.

Now, imagine a similarly ubiquitous interface for our electric power system. You could plug in various distributed energy resources (DERs) — solar, storage, an electric vehicle or smart thermostat — and have them all work seamlessly with each other and the grid. Developing such “plug and play” technology is the goal of the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium’s (GMLC) Plug & Play DER Challenge.

The initiative was launched in July, with a call for submissions, and next week, at Solar Power International (SPI) in Anaheim, it will be showcasing some of the ideas and visions it has received thus far.

The synchronicity here is more than coincidental. The solar industry has long been interested in the concept of plug and play, primarily as part of its ongoing efforts to make solar systems ever easier and faster to install. Reframing the idea for any type of DER reflects the expanding scope of the industry. SPI has now morphed into North America Smart Energy Week, combining SPI, Energy Storage International, the Smart Energy Microgrid Market Place and Hydrogen + Fuel Cell North America.

Within this bigger picture, plug-and-play interoperability for DERs will be pivotal. Certainly, it could replace storage as the electric power industry’s next big game changer, setting the stage for a truly interactive grid.

Whenever a state ups it renewable energy goals — as California did last week, becoming the second state, along with Hawaii, to set the bar at 100-percent by 2045 — the response is fairly predictable. Articles in both industry and mainstream media will question whether going all-in on renewables is possible, technically or economically, and if it can really slow the pace of climate change and our increasingly erratic weather.

But, as Vox’s David Roberts notes in his most recent column, feasibility is not a top concern for most people. Citing a new poll, Roberts writes that the public is solidly for renewables and sees 100 percent as a worthy goal. Further, he says, a majority of people in  the poll consider the push for 100 percent a good idea even if their electric bills were to go up 10 or 30 percent.

What makes these results particularly noteworthy is that the poll was part of a larger market research effort conducted for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association for investor-owned utilities. With such strong support for renewables, what remains to be worked out is how and how quickly the transition to clean energy can occur, and what trade-offs we are willing to accept, as individuals, consumers and a society.

The search for a seamless interface

As we transition from fossil fuels to renewables and modernize our 100-year-old, analog grid, an even more fundamental change in our energy system has become possible. Instead of a one-way grid that maintains a second-by-second balance between supply and demand, we are moving toward a two-way system in which that real-time balance can be shaped and managed to move consumption to times of highest production.

Under such dynamic conditions, what matters is not only the portfolio of generation and DERs powering the grid,but how efficiently and cost-effectively they all work together.

The particular focus of the Plug & Play DER Challenge is the development of an energy services interface (ESI) that can encompass the interactions between communications, data and electricity required to simplify the integration of DERs. Essentially, it’s the “plug” part of plug and play.  . Using specific technical criteria, submissions for the Challenge also have to detail plans for a simulated demonstration of the proposed integration process.

The papers received took diverse approaches to the ESI concept, from very simple to extremely complex. The depth of technical detail in some of the papers may not make for exciting reading for most people, but each proposal has its own innovative and cool components, reflecting the intense interest the Challenge has generated across the industry.

A small sampling:

Blockchain ESI: This proposal leverages an established demand response standard, called OpenADR, with blockchain technology, to design an ESI that is “open, scalable, secure, vendor neutral, technologically agnostic and resilient.” Blockchain is a very secure, distributed digital ledger that, in simplest terms, is used for online business transactions. Here it will be part of a framework for “Smart Grid Contracts” that “allow system operators and service providers to schedule and commit a significant capacity of dispatchable DER assets into planning and operational time horizons.”

Tech standards-based ESI: OpenADR is one of the several standards used in this proposal, which also integrates highly technical international standards for DERs and utility markets. The ESI supported by this framework would be able to exchanged information to assess the capabilities of individual or aggregated DERs and then optimize the operation of each one based on price information and market conditions. It would also send data to utilities and third-party vendors.

Cloud-based ESI: In this proposal, the ESI is based on a “service oriented” approach in which “external parties do not need to know how the DER facility manages its DER equipment” as long as the required electricity or grid services are delivered. Using cloud-based software for the proposed simulation, any specific service could be provided in a range of ways — optimizing different DERs to improve their efficiency and cost-effectiveness — without the end user being aware of any change. This approach simplifies “integration of DER facilities with the grid so that their interactions with external parties are similar regardless of the type of DER facility being integrated.”

The takeaway here, first, is that plug-and-play technology is complex, and at present, no one approach or specification has achieved a USB level of seamlessness. Each of the Plug & Play DER proposals has potential advantages and drawbacks, and developing an ESI that best reflects industry needs will take time.

On the upside, the proposals described here were submitted by information technology, engineering or consulting firms with special expertise in developing complex systems and frameworks. Almost by definition, the success of such organizations involves the ability to “fail fast” — that is, test new ideas, make mistakes and then adjust and improve a model or solution based on that previous experience.

In fact, the proposals received for the Challenge, including the three listed above, are now being revised based on feedback from the GMLC.

The question now is whether such quick iteration might shorten the traditional, multi-year time frames for the kind of changes needed for high levels of renewables on the grid. The basic message from the EEI  research is that utilities must embrace renewables, but they can successfully argue a transition to 100 percent is not technically feasible in the near term. A safe, affordable pathway will take time.

Well — as the EEI study counsels utilities to say about renewables — yes, but…

One of the main elements of the energy transition — in the U.S. and around the globe — is the speed with which it is unfolding. Whatever the issue — the intermittency of wind and solar, rewiring the grid for two-way flows of energy, data and communications — solutions are emerging and scaling, and their associated costs are falling, faster than anyone expects.

Keeping up means utilities and regulators are having to reorganize and recalibrate their ability to adapt to a constantly changing energy landscape. The Plug & Play DER Challenge could be an incubator and accelerator for technology that will make 100-percent renewables not only achievable but, sooner than we think, the accepted norm.

The Plug & Play DER Challenge will be the topic of a technical symposium, beginning at 3:20 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26, at SPI. For more information, contact Sharon Thomas at sthomas@sepapower.org.

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