Think Energy

Are Microgrids the Answer to a Cleaner Future? Part 2

Apr 25, 2022

In part one of our conversation about microgrids, we spoke with Charles Berndt, Manager of Grid Technology with Hydro Ottawa, about how these systems can help Canada reach its net zero goals. Charles joins us again for part two, this time focusing on how we can meet the demand for energy while maintaining safety and security—all in the name of decarbonizing our future.

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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. We're back today with Charles Berndt, Manager of Grid Technology at Hydro Ottawa to talk about micro grids on part two of our show. Last time, Charles went in depth about the benefits of micro grids and how they operate while connected to the electricity grid, but that they can also operate on their own using local energy generation in times of power outages caused by storms or grid failure. Today, he's going to discuss distributed energy resources, and how they are connected to the micro grid.

Rebecca Schwartz  01:08

Now more than ever, we know people care about the environment, climate change and sustainability, and are increasingly interested in things like renewable generation and electrification. All of that leads us to creating a smarter electricity grid.

Dan Seguin  01:23

Renewable energy generation is expected to play a major role in the further decarbonisation of Canada's electricity system, while relying on nature to assist us in generating cleaner electricity. Sometimes, it's not always the most reliable.

Rebecca Schwartz  01:42

As we know, Mother Nature is pretty fickle. So, that's where distributed energy resources like energy storage and distributed generation come into play.

Dan Seguin  01:52

Here's today's big question. While the time has come to decarbonize our grid even further with alternative energy sources, how can we ensure we can meet the growing demand for energy while also maintaining safety and security?

Rebecca Schwartz  02:09

Charles, it's nice to have you back.

Dan Seguin  02:11

Okay, Charles, let's dive into part two. What sets distributed energy resources, better known as DERs? Apart from micro grids? Both can generate or store energy and manage consumption depending on type, right? Can you unpack this for listeners?

Charles Berndt  02:30

Yeah, I've always considered DERs kind of the individual parts of a micro grid, right? The micro grid is a holistic thing and an area where it has both generation and storage and consumption. Whereas DERs are those individual pieces that could be solar, it could be battery storage, it could be you know, it could be a hot water tank, you know, you can think of that as a distributed energy resource and electric vehicle battery, solar on the roof, any of those could be could be DERs, and they could be a part of a micro grid. But but not a micro grid on its own. If that, if that makes sense.

Rebecca Schwartz  03:10

Okay, so what's driving the growth around distributed energy resources?

Charles Berndt  03:14

I think you're seeing kind of two big drivers. I mean, the first is obviously economics of the storage and generation we're seeing solar and battery storage getting cheaper every year, it's falling quite rapidly. And it's a significant reduction in costs per kilowatt hour, every year. And they're getting better. And the second one, I would say is that drive towards lower carbon, I think, you know, customers are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, and they're starting to get to the point where they're willing to spend their own money to do that. So you have that double effect, the technology is getting better and cheaper, and then more customers are willing to invest and then it kind of gets that momentum. So I think it's it's very much the two things hand in hand.

Dan Seguin  04:02

Okay. Now, Charles, talk to me about the rise of local energy. Is there a need for greater education to help customers understand that they can shift from being a consumer that's consuming energy to a prosumer- producing, even selling electricity back to the grid?

Charles Berndt  04:22

Yeah, I'd say yes, but not in the way you might expect. I think I've found customers to be fairly well informed that the technology and how it works, they seem, you know, they seem to know exactly what the options are available. Ontario in specific has had those programs for for quite a few years and people are getting, getting a firm understanding. They're reading that in the news and they understand it quite well, actually. And so I find, excuse me, that the education support where it's needed is more around the economic choices available to them. Um, what is the business case and the return on that investment, if they were to make that leap? And unfortunately, that answer is very local. You know that every jurisdiction, every province, every territory, every country has a different economic model for how they sell and compensate electricity. And so there's no universal answer for everyone, it really, it really is a localized answer. And that's, I think, where you know, where the education or the support is needed is how to build that, build that in for people to help them understand, you know, how a homeowner or a business owner can make that choice and where the economics play out, and they can make the choice and empower them to make the choice that they want to.

Dan Seguin  05:43

Okay, here's a follow up question. What's been the biggest barrier or challenge for more adoption? What's needed to overcome them?

Charles Berndt  05:53

I'm gonna say economics again. And I know it's, it may be boring, but I've met, like I said, I've met a lot of passionate customers who want to adopt, but the economic case is not there. So I think, you know, there's, there's no silver bullet here. We've seen incentives have an impact in the past, but then I think we can all recognize that the solution to the problem needs to be a little bit more holistic and needs to be sustainable for all the customers. So I think we're seeing, you know, market reform is what's needed and we're starting to embark, Ontario is  embarking on that journey, and I'm happy to see it but yeah, not, not this attempted silver bullet here for that one specific problem. It needs that big system view and make sure that we're making the appropriate choices.

Rebecca Schwartz  06:40

We've touched on the what of micro grids, what about the ‘how’, how does it work connecting DERS and micro grids to the grid? Will utilities be required to digitally retrofit their aging infrastructure to make the grid more resilient and reliable in the face of increasing climate stress, rising electricity demand, and essentially greater overall dependence on electricity?

Charles Berndt  07:05

The short answer is yes. All of the above, really. You know, as I mentioned, last time, the need to become more interactive with our customers as they, as they become increasingly part of that generation mix as they adopt distributed energy resources, we need to have more intelligence at the edge of our system. So not just looking at the substation and sending electricity down the wire, so to speak, but we need to manage the assets and the grid differently. This different type of management will help our planning and investment programs. And to do this, we need to make significant investment in our systems and how we collect data, how we manage data, how we use that data to make choices and operating the system, both for sunny weather and during major storms or events. And, you know, that's not to say we won't have to invest in the traditional sense, we're still going to need more wires, we're still going to need substations because we're a growing Ottawa is a growing community and electric vehicles, for example and electrification of heating and cooling brings, brings a lot of load. And so you've got to continually balance, you know, how do we do the non wires and incentivize those, but then also make sure that we have that foundation in place? So will it require us to digitally retrofit? Absolutely. It's all going to be a technology solution primarily.

Dan Seguin  08:33

That's great. Thanks, Charles. Now, are there concerns about unpredictability of certain renewable energy resources and how that might impact the electricity grid and operations of micro grids? How do you mitigate that?

Charles Berndt  08:48

I mean, it can be a concern. And you can mitigate that in kind of two ways. So, for the energy, we need to store it somehow. And that can be local, by putting a little battery next to your generation or some other type of storage, but then also, you can leverage the grid for that storage, you know, we can, we can use things like large hydroelectric generator systems in the far north to be a large grid size battery. So that's one way to do it. And the other way is to mix, you know, it's not all solar, it's not all wind, it's not all hydroelectric. It's really the combination of many and making sure- I keep coming back to this because I'm, you know, I really believe in looking at a systems approach; a holistic approach look at what mixing those look like where the sun goes down, the wind picks up and overnight, the river keeps flowing. So that's, you know, that's how you do it, is you make sure that you're not over incentivizing over investing in one thing over the other. It's truly a mix.

Rebecca Schwartz  09:53

So, Charles, exactly how important is it for distributed energy resources, both in addressing climate change and energy security challenges? Can DERs help shield communities against the impact of extreme weather events, which are becoming more and more frequent?

Charles Berndt  10:10

In time, absolutely. I know, short term you can, you can improve resiliency with that local storage. You can potentially put together a micro grid on a campus or other critical location. But in the longer term, you obviously can, can lower the impact on the environment through that energy switching electrification, bringing more renewables into the mix means less carbon impact, and less carbon is always a, it's always a good thing. And it's going to, you know, it's not going to solve climate, the climate crisis on its own, but it's going to, it's going to help and it's going to reduce the problem. And it's the way to go.

Dan Seguin  10:47

Now, I'd love to hear your thoughts on where energy storage, and the battery in electric vehicles fits into this equation. As the majority of EV charging demand is expected to come from home charging.

Charles Berndt  11:02

Yeah, I think this is our probably our biggest opportunity in the short term. As transportation gets electrified, you know, how we integrate how we manage and optimize that load can have a massive benefit to everyone, the grid and our customers. Being able to manage that charging and being able to do that signaling, that dynamic conversation with the customer and their technology. And to help manage it so that it's, it's done at the right time, it's done at the economic time for them and, and they have the flexibility, but we empower, empower them to make the choice that makes sense for them economically, and then, and then try and use those signals also to help manage our system as that load grows. For that future vision of where electric vehicles could play, I admittedly was a huge doubter of that vehicle to grid technology, I, you know, I couldn't see a customer being willing to do that. But, you know, I look at advertisements for electric vehicles now. And you see that they're, they're really touting that feature of being able to have that emergency backup power, that, that local power. And so now, once the customer is comfortable with withdrawing that energy out of the battery, you know, I'm sure it's a small, it's a small leap to use that or being willing to use it in support of the grid. And then there's an economic, you know, solution there to figure out but, you know, I don't see it as as a such a red line, as I did before, when, you know, people were really worried about warranties on batteries. You know, that was a huge conversation early on in EVs, I'm hearing much, much less of that. And even range anxiety, you're hearing much, much less of that people, people are getting comfortable with these things and realizing their whole value.

Rebecca Schwartz  12:51

From my knowledge, distributed energy resources are somewhat invisible and can't be controlled by grid operators, correct? This means that it's difficult to integrate them into the overall operation of the grid. Are there any smart digital solutions in the future that could enable DER owners to monitor and manage the resources in real time? And could this help grid operators more closely monitor and influence DER owners?

Charles Berndt  13:18

Yeah, I think I think your right on both. Right now, it is pretty passive. We are, we have knowledge of certain size of generators from the larger generators we connect to and, and that the size of generator that we connect to with with the technology to make sure that we know what's going on- that's getting smaller every year, if that makes sense. We're now asking, you know, the smaller generators to give us insight and to connect to us on a communications platform. But going forward, it's you know, in order to really incentivize that huge adoption of DERs, we need that platform, we have to have that platform. And we have to evolve and adapt as a utility. So that our control room and our engineers and our staff and our customer service, folks, everybody has that platform to understand what's going on what's changing in the grid, and how do we manage it day to day and the more DERs we get, the more critical it becomes that we have that visibility and interaction with our customers. So we've been investing, you know, over the last few years, and we have a rather significant roadmap ahead of us. Over the next five years, we're going to be investing significantly in our platforms, not only our traditional control and outage management systems that we've always had, making sure those are modern, but then also adding those analytics modules on top. We've, we've started to add, you know, people with with a data science background to our utility, we're hiring different people. We're pulling in people from technology, from, you know, from the high tech sector, and we're leveraging modern ways of managing and manipulating data to understand insight and where is it going? Where is it going to be today? How do we optimize? And so, it's going to help us immensely in managing that going forward.

Dan Seguin  15:12

Now, Charles, we touched a bit on this earlier, but energy from the wind and sun is intermittent, and often unpredictable. Critics point to this as the fatal flaw of renewable energy and the reason electricity prices rose in places aggressively adopting it. Is this true?

Charles Berndt  15:31

Not really, I mean, like I said before, there's no silver bullet here. So, if we incentivize or over incentivize one thing over another, then yeah, you're gonna have an impact on cost, there's no doubt about that. But, you need to look at the big picture. And I'm gonna get back to this holistic vision of of the system, because, you know, if you look at what gains when we reduce carbon, and I'll point to an example, it's a bit of a touchy example, in Ontario, but the elimination of the coal fired generation in Ontario. You know, leaving the politics aside, there was a significant improvement in the air quality of the Greater Toronto Area, so that leads to better health outcomes. That leads to better, you know, better quality of living for the residents. Lower overall health care costs. So, somewhere that was, you know, that was not maybe not fully recouped. But, that has an impact on everyone's life, whether they're, they're personally paying the electric bill or not. So, it's that type of broader view that needs to be taken here. And we can debate the, you know, the implementation of it, and the, you know, whether it's a carbon tax or, you know, offsetting generation or incentivizing a different type of generation, I, you know, that's, I think, besides the point, I think, I think we can all, if we all just take a step back and recognize the holistic improvements to everything, then it's very much worth it.

Rebecca Schwartz  16:59

All right, sorry, not sorry, Charles, but I'm going to put you on the spot here. Cann microgrids, and DERs power our transition to net zero by 2050.

Charles Berndt  17:09

Absolutely. Without a doubt. Shortest answer I'm gonna have. Absolutely. There's no, I have no doubt. The technology is there. The software is there, you just, we just need to do it. And we just need to, you know, change, change our thinking and change our approach and be willing to question how we do it and challenge ourselves to do it better.

Dan Seguin  17:30

Okay, Charles, we've reached the end of another episode of the thinkenergy podcast. Once again, I'd love if we could end with a few rapid fire questions. Are you ready?

Charles Berndt  17:42

I'm ready. I'm ready.

Dan Seguin  17:43

Now, what is the closest thing to real magic that you've ever witnessed?

Charles Berndt  17:51

I've got a whimsical answer for this one. I used to work at a place where we used a lot of liquid nitrogen. So, it's kind of weird, but we just had a lot of it on hand. And one lunchtime, we were having an employee celebration, and somebody came in with a bunch of cream and some, some vanilla extract and like a drill with one of those paint stirrers and a big pot. And I was like, "what are we doing with this"? Like, "what is this for"? And the director of engineering took a big cup of liquid nitrogen and put all the cream and the sugar and everything in a pot with a drill, stirring it like a can of paint and poured the nitrogen in. And literally 30 seconds later, we were all eating ice cream. And it was like, such a simple and obvious thing. I don't know why I still think of it to this day. It was like, it only took three minutes and we were all eating, all 70 of us were eating delicious, fresh ice cream. So yeah, it's kind of a ridiculous answer. But it was magic. I don't understand, it was magic.

Dan Seguin  18:45

That's so cool, Charles. Now, what has been the biggest challenge to you personally, since the pandemic?

Charles Berndt  18:52

So, I manage a few people, and for me, I'm a very personally interactive person, I'm very social, I thrive on social interaction. And, so it's been a little isolating, and I've had to, you know, change how I do things, how I interact with a group of people, co-workers and the team that I work with. And, so it's been a growth for me, but, you know, I have not had significant impacts on the pandemic. I've been personally quite lucky. So if that's the biggest thing I have to complain about, then I consider myself lucky. The benefit has been I've you know, spent so much time with my very young family and it's been it's been good that way. And they're young enough that I don't have to teach them anything, you know, according to a curriculum. I'm lucky that way. I'm not I'm not there yet.

Dan Seguin  19:42

Okay, we've all been watching a lot more Netflix and TV lately, right? What's your favorite movie or show?

Charles Berndt  19:52

Right now, it's it's Drive to Survive. I'm a huge Formula One fan. For those who can't see me I'm actually wearing a Formula One shirt and yeah, it's, it's awesome for me I get to see a show that's my favorite sport. So that's, yeah, it's great.

Rebecca Schwartz  20:08

Well, Charles, thanks again for joining us today. We hope you had a good time.

Charles Berndt  20:12

I did. Thank you so much for having me again.

Dan Seguin  20:15

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.