Think Energy

Are Microgrids the Answer to a Cleaner Future? Part 1

Apr 11, 2022

The term microgrid might make them sound small, but these systems could hold a big key to Canada’s low-carbon future. Microgrids are made up of energy users, distributed energy resources, and advanced controllers, all working together to form an energy grid for both renewable and non-renewable generators. They also have the potential to adopt cleaner technologies, which in turn could improve the way the utility industry is managed and operated. Charles Berndt, Manager of Grid Technology at Hydro Ottawa, joins Dan and Rebecca for a conversation on what microgrids are and how they can help Canada reach its net zero goals.

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Dan Seguin  00:06

This is thinkenergy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So join me, Dan Seguin, and my co host, Rebecca Schwartz, as we explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry. Hey, everyone. Welcome back. The electricity grid was built to deliver electricity to homes and businesses a little more than a century ago. It's hard to imagine with our obsession and dependency on technology today, how it really wasn't that long ago, we lived without electricity.

Rebecca Schwartz  00:51

The electricity grid is basically a large machine. Think of it almost as the world's largest machine, but built for the outdated 20th century power systems, which are very simple and flowing only in one direction. As we know, though, machines are complex, and they need things like maintenance, replacements, investments, and of course, innovation and upgrades.

Dan Seguin  01:14

Well, this large machine is already getting the biggest upgrade in history. So it can communicate with our homes, businesses, smartphones, our cars and watches. More than any time in history, people want to connect and interact with the grid. That would have been unimaginable 100 years ago.

Rebecca Schwartz  01:39

It's definitely an exciting time to be in our industry. There's lots of new incentives being introduced by our government to support things like energy management, cleaner tech, electric vehicles, and smart grid projects.

Dan Seguin  01:50

Yes, it was just in March 2022, the Government of Canada released its climate target of cutting emissions by 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. The plan includes $9.1 billion in new investments to cut pollution and accelerate the path to net zero by 2050. It also outlines funding to make it easier for Canadians to switch to electric vehicles, make Canada's electricity grid even cleaner, help industries adopt cleaner tech, empower communities to take climate action, embrace the power of nature to fight climate change, and reduce oil and gas emissions, amongst others.

Rebecca Schwartz  02:39

So Dan, let's talk about a relatively unknown technology that I'm told can play a large part in helping along some of these initiatives. They're called micro grids. Micro grids, as defined by the Conference Board of Canada are systems of interconnected energy users, distributed energy resources, and advanced controllers that form local electricity grids. These energy resources include renewable and non renewable generators, and increasingly battery energy storage systems. Which due to their potential for adapting cleaner technologies, micro grids are playing a pretty important role in contributing to our transition for that low carbon future.

Dan Seguin  03:21

So, here's today's big question. Are micro grids the answer to a faster path to net zero and Canada's clean energy future? Our guest today is Charles Berndt, the manager of grid technology here at Hydro Ottawa. Charles, welcome to the show and to part one of our discussion on all things micro grids. Charles, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your role at Hydro Ottawa as a manager of grid technology?

Charles Berndt  03:56

Yeah, loving husband, father of two young, wonderful boys, engineer, foodie, and complete energy geek. Yeah, my day job, Manager of Grid Technology; I look after technology that's used to help us control our grid. So, our system operations staff, any platform they use to to monitor and understand what's going on out in the grids, whether it's, you know, managing devices or looking at outages. That's what what my team does. And we also look at new and emerging technologies. I spend a lot of my time looking at new ventures and looking at, you know, how can we apply our systems and technology to different problems and how we can improve upon those platforms?

Rebecca Schwartz  04:41

In what instances or applications can micro grids be applied? Is there a minimum or maximum micro grid size?

Charles Berndt  04:49

I wouldn't say there's a minimum or maximum per se, I would say it has to be economically feasible, obviously, and it has to solve the problem you're out to solve. So, for the most part, I think you'll see larger institutions, larger campuses that start to look at this technology. At least that's what we're seeing now. But I wouldn't say that there's there's hard and fast rules as to how big it is, or how small it can be. But definitely, you know, the economics are gonna play into that.

Rebecca Schwartz  05:19

Okay, follow up for you, Charles, what is the return on investment for a microgrid? And what are some of the financial, operational, and environmental benefits?

Charles Berndt  05:28

I think it's, you know, the ROI question is obviously, the biggest one, and it's dependent on how you take a view upon the whole problem, and it really needs to depend on the larger view of things. So you're not looking purely at the cost of electricity. You need to look at those other aspects. Like reliability, you know, what does that reliability mean to your particular business or to your community, and if you have critical needs, or you have carbon objectives, or you want to get off of certain carbon sources, and then you can really make it work. But yeah, there, it's not on a pure electricity cost basis, so you're not going to compete with the grid. But the broader you look, the more holistic view you take it, the more it's gonna make sense.

Rebecca Schwartz  06:14

Okay, last follow up along this line of questioning, how long do microgrids last? And does it depend on how they're fueled?

Charles Berndt  06:22

You know, it depends on how much you're willing to spend, I guess, you know, your storage, your generation, your consumption, they all have to match up. And if they match up perfectly, if you're able to make storage, you know, have enough storage or have enough generation to make it work, then you could stay islanded indefinitely. But definitely, it's the economics of the situation and what your, what your objectives are, then you can make it as long lasting or as brief as you need it to be.

Dan Seguin  06:50

Now, Charles, what are the components of a successful micro grid project? What needs to come together?

Charles Berndt  06:58

It's those, it's those three things, it's the generation, the storage and the consumption need to be kind of imbalanced, in total, so you need to work together. And to do that you need technology. Technology is the basic, biggest aspect. Some people say the, the smart grid problem is a software problem. And they're, they're actually right. You just need to, to have the sources and think of that energy balance out and need to manage dynamically where you're, where you're taking the energy from, where you're putting it, and how you're managing those customers' expectations. So we you know, we kind of take it for granted today that we're connected to this unending source of electricity, this grid, right, but, you know, the closer you get to that, you need to have that more dynamic and technology that manages that.

Dan Seguin  07:50

Okay, now, in your opinion, who are the ideal customers to adopt this technology? Water treatment plants, hospitals, universities, large manufacturers?

Charles Berndt  08:02

I think, I think definitely the campus, the campus style approach is, is the ones who are looking at it now. We're starting to see, traditionally cogeneration projects are starting to expand. So those campuses that need to use, or hospitals or other major institutions that needs that already have significant needs for backup or other energy generation requirements. They're the ones that are starting to look at this. And I think those are the ideal, the ideal candidates to look at this technology.

Rebecca Schwartz  08:33

Can you give us some good examples of a micro grid project here in Ottawa, or elsewhere that really showcases the potential?

Charles Berndt  08:40

We're starting to see the educational campuses, they're really looking into that. I kind of mentioned earlier that those who have cogeneration, we're seeing both actually all three, or three of the three of the big ones, Carleton, U Ottawa, and Algonquin have some form of cogeneration and U Ottawa I know is looking at a micro grid for part of their campus. We're seeing a lot of district thermal starting to happen, a lot of a lot of investment in that front. So when you start looking at energy holistically, those are the ones who can really start to think about wow, if I take a broader look, use all the energy sources, all of the energy uses then those are the ones who could benefit from it. We also ran a project here at Hydro Ottawa, a technology project to look at how could we develop technology to make our customers more grid interactive, and it's those types of technologies that would help in the creation and management of a micro grid.

Dan Seguin  09:47

Charles, micro grids use renewable and non renewable energy sources. Correct? Can you expand on what that means?

Charles Berndt  09:57

Yeah, you can use traditional fossil fuel generation. Fossil fuel sources like natural gas, and again, coming back to that cogeneration that was the first step in the direction of micro grids that many, many institutions have taken. But also, you know, with storage, and solar and wind, these, these things are getting cheaper and more commoditized, especially on storage that the dollar per per kilowatt hour store is, is dropping significantly, and solar is dropping significantly. And so it's, you know, we're starting to see the economics start to make sense where you look at not just the traditional natural gas fired generation, but you're looking at both solar and natural gas.

Dan Seguin  10:45

Now, wondering if you can expand on what is a hybrid micro grid system?

Charles Berndt  10:53

It's all of the above scenario, right? I mean, you're looking at, you're looking at not only just generation in the traditional sense of burning natural gas, but you can you can get wind, you can get solar, and then you can be you can be grid connected, and you can think of the grid as a potential generation source or some some other source of energy that you can balance with. And, I know, that's almost contradictory, having a micro grid, grid tied, but you know, it could be seen as the best of both worlds where you're just out to solve the problem that you have in the most economical and technological way. That's feasible, you know, it's not a, it's never a purist game. It's about it's about solving what you need to solve for. And don't, you know, don't paint yourself into a corner. It doesn't make sense.

Rebecca Schwartz  11:42

Much like small modular nuclear reactors, are there applications whereby micro grids could be used in remote communities in Canada? And what are some of the environmental benefits for implementing micro grids in these areas?

Charles Berndt  11:56

You know, I  think traditionally, the remote communities, small communities have been, you know, heavily, heavily reliant on that, on carbon based fuels like, so diesel generation, bunker oil generation, like really the old, old school type of heavy carbon intense generation sources. And they're the ideal, the ideal candidates for this type of technology, not only, you know, in the, in the ideal sense of getting them completely off carbon and getting them on to solar and wind, or even new technology, like small modular reactor technology, but even optimizing how you're burning the carbon, you know, with storage of carbon plus storage, I know it's, you know, some might see it as an unnecessary middle step, but, you know, operating any generation source in its, in its ideal efficiency window, could could see savings and can see efficiency gains. And that, you know, that, in turn, will reduce carbon emissions significantly.

Dan Seguin  13:01

That's great, Charles. Now, wondering if you could help us better understand why utility partnerships are so important to micro grid projects?

Charles Berndt  13:12

I mean, I'm gonna speak selfishly a little bit. You know, the utilities are your ideal partner. We've got, we've got a broad selection of very strong, technical individuals, but also people who, who have been focused on this problem for many years. And, and I, you know, I think the first, the first blush that a customer might look at it and say, "well, how does it make sense, I'm trying to get disconnected from the utility and the micro grid sense", but in actuality, you know, the technology that could be used here, benefits the utility and the customer could benefit by being connected to the utility. So, a partnership can make it economical, can make it feasible, and, you know, we have, we have the ability to to help you access government funding for, you know, climate change, but also for technology development. So, I think the utility is an ideal candidate to partner with. We have that we have that strength and those abilities and we're always willing to help.

Rebecca Schwartz  14:15

Can microgrids improve local management of power supply and demand and by ricochet defer costly investments by utilities and new power generation?

Charles Berndt  14:24

Absolutely. I mean, without a doubt, it could drastically improve our ability to manage load and to target our investment in a more efficient way. So today, we're designing you know, it's our design is driven by the worst case scenario. What could the customer consume? What could, in a worst case, does all of our customers need? And so you see things that, you know, we saw it in the broader Ontario context with the natural gas peaking plants, you know, they spend most of their time just just sitting around but waiting for that, you know, that four or five or six days a year where they need, they're desperately needed and they get spooled up and they use carbon and they cost a lot of money to maintain and operate. But with the technology that underpins these micro grids, you can, you can use it to not only create the micro grid and manage the micro grid, but you can also use it to change the relationship that your customer has with the utility or the micro grid has with its, you know, its host utility or partner utility. And being able to dynamically manage the load and sources and help to curtail those worst case scenarios where, where it allows the utility to say, "okay, I don't have to worry about this one day in 365, I can worry about all the other 364 days, and I can optimize for economics or carbon across the year and not just always worry about that that worst case scenario".

Dan Seguin  15:52

Charles, what role could microgrids have in accelerating the path to Canada's net zero targets? Where do you see their biggest potential?

Charles Berndt  16:04

I see it, you know, as a technology person, obviously, I look first to the technology and the development of that technology. And it comes back to that worst case scenario where, if we start deploying the technology to manage consumption, or to help the customer have that two way relationship with the utility, and not just for generation, you know, the customer wants to generate solar electricity, but having that dynamic conversation where we're sending each other signals of what we need, then that could help. You can just target- what do you want to change? Do you want to change the economics? Well, then you can set your set your signaling, on economics, if you want to manage carbon, well then just say, hey, carbon intensive time, why don't you, if you're interested in reducing carbon, then we can reduce your consumption or move to your stored electricity and you can you can target any problem that you want to solve. And one of the big ones could be carbon.

Dan Seguin  17:02

Okay. Now, the Government of Canada recently announced $9.1 billion in new investments to cut pollution. Do you see opportunities in those initiatives for microgrids? If so, which?

Charles Berndt  17:16

I mean, absolutely, you know, those technologies that would be leveraged to run a micro grid, again, could be used to manage that carbon. And so you could, you could work with technology development, you could work with deployment of that technology, and they'll all be eligible for for this government funding to help, you know, you can just say, look, how you manage the carbon with this technology will definitely be a significant driver for an attractor, for any government agency wanting to invest in carbon reduction, and it has the benefits of increasing reliability and making everything much more efficient.

Rebecca Schwartz  17:56

Okay, Charles, thank you for joining us today. But, you'll be back here for part two of our discussion on micro grids where you'll also talk about distributed energy resources, among other related topics.

Charles Berndt  18:07

I can't wait.

Dan Seguin  18:08

Now, it's that time again, Charles, let's end on a few rapid fire questions. Are you ready to go sir?

Charles Berndt  18:18


Dan Seguin  18:18

Okay. What are you reading right now?

Charles Berndt  18:21

This is embarrassing, but I'm reading The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. I just finished the Count of Monte Cristo in the fall. And I was like, blown away. It was so good. So I had to go to the next one. So it's, it's the Three Musketeers. Yeah.

Dan Seguin  18:39

Now, what would you name your boat? If you had one?

Charles Berndt  18:44

I don't have one. But obviously, you're talking to an engineering and a geek. So, obviously, enterprise is the only answer to this question.

Dan Seguin  18:53

Charles, who is someone that you admire?

Charles Berndt  18:57

I'm gonna say my wife on this one. Yeah, she's, she's brilliant. She's stronger than me. She's, wonderful and patient and intelligent. And, ya, no, I, I admire her so much.

Dan Seguin  19:09

And lastly, mon amis, what is exciting you about our industry right now.

Charles Berndt  19:16

Change. Change. It's getting faster. People are more interested in it's the carbon emission conversation, the environmental efficiency, everything. Electrification of transportation; it's all converging on the utility industry. And the utility industry is poised for not only regulatory change, but technology change, and we're starting to see that with the people who are coming to work for us who we're attracting. We're seeing that in the in the level of dialogue that's happening out in the world, people are talking about us more, and that brings pressure, but I think it's exciting. And I'm really, really excited about the future.

Rebecca Schwartz  19:59

Well, Charles, we'll talk to you again on our next episode. If our listeners want to learn more about you, how can I connect?

Charles Berndt  20:05

The emails always there. I'm on LinkedIn. Yeah, yeah. Look me up.

Dan Seguin  20:10

Again, Charles, thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you had a lot of fun and that you'll come back.

Charles Berndt  20:15

Yeah, thank you very much for having me.

Dan Seguin  20:17

Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the thinkenergy podcast. And don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review wherever you're listening. And to find out more about today's guests, or previous episodes, visit I hope you'll join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.