Japan-U.S. smart grid project now live in New Mexico

A Japanese consortium of government groups and tech companies teams up with a New Mexico utility and a federal lab for a smart grid demonstration project to figure out how to integrate solar electricity and energy storage into an electric grid.

Today in Cleantech

Do green energy marketers really pose a threat to utilities’ monopoly on power? An interesting report this morning says yes, if you’re talking about  deregulated markets such as Great Britain. That’s where companies like Co-Operative Energy and Good Energy are trying to eke out customers for green power from the 99.5 percent of power supplied by the country’s six big utilities. In the United States, companies like Green Mountain Energy (now owned by NRG Energy) have constructed similar business plans around selling renewable power (mainly wind) to retail customers — different than the big, block power purchases we’ve seen from buyers like Google. As for how utilities will manage the growth of distributed, customer-owned power generation such as rooftop solar panels or campus backup power generators, that’s where microgrid operators like Balance Energy, Lockheed Martin, Viridity Energy and others want to play. It’s an interesting set of concepts to watch — and still a long way from major market penetration. Most of the United States remains non-competitive, with traditional utility-customer relationships that would make it difficult for new entrants to gain market share for their differentiated power supplies.

Today in Cleantech

India is ripe for smart grid investment — but it’s going to be a very different kind of smart grid than the ones being built in the United States, Europe and China. That’s the gist of a recent “smart grid playbook” report from Smart Grid News, which cited reports that place India as the third-largest potential smart grid market behind the U.S. and China over the next 20 years. But while the U.S. is focuing on smart meters, distribution automation and demand response, and China on its “strong, smart grid” with massive high-voltage transmission lines, India’s grid is far more fragmented, and far less reliable. The country suffers from frequent blackouts, and many large industries build their own power generation to have a reliable source of electricity — a set of circumstances that could make so-called microgrid systems far more attractive in India. Meanwhile, many rural areas lack grid power, which could open the door to clever and cost-effective distributed generation and energy storage systems. As for smart meters, IBM’s energy and utilities chief Guido Bartels notes that “non-technical losses” — a nice way of saying energy theft — remains the top concern of India’s utilities in terms of installing newer, smarter meters. Energy theft is also a big problem in South America, the Caribbean and other developing regions, making up an interesting market for lower-cost, tamper-proof smart meter systems.

Today in Cleantech

The U.S. military is leading the charge in the development of an interesting subset of smart grid technology — the so-called microgrid. This morning, on-site power generation and management company PowerSecure announced the commissioning of its “Smart Charging Micro-Grid” for the U.S. Army — a platform meant to control generators, solar panels, plug-in vehicles and all that power-sucking equipment that Army units use in remote field encampments. A movable microgrid is about as “micro” as these systems get — most are built to control standing infrastructure, such as the U.S. Marine Corps’ Twentynine Palms base in California, which is being outfitted to run independently of the power grid by General Electric. Eaton is also working on a grant-funded military microgrid research project. Last month, the Department of Defense said it would work with the Energy Department’s ARPA-E program to figure out how to generate and store power at more than 500 military installations around the world. Those bases need to keep running during blackouts, which gives them an excuse to spend pretty freely on microgrid projects. While the world microgrid industry was worth about $4 billion last year, according to Pike Research, more integration is needed to make their blend of home-made power and islanding capabilities pencil out against grid power. Hospital distributed power and demand response technology company Blue Pillar is working on ways that U.S. Air Force base microgrids could feed their power back to the grid to help pay for their costs, for example.

AEP: Deploying the Future of Backyard Batteries

Backyard batteries that back up nearby homes and businesses as well as the neighborhood grid could provide a lot of value to utilities and their customers, but they come at a high price. Utility AEP’s “community energy storage” (CES) pilot project should help see how the concept pencils out in the real world.

Balance Energy Quietly Building a Web of Microgrids

Military bases have been some of the pioneers for so-called microgrids — systems of self-generated electricity and intelligent controls that can be disconnected from the grid at large to keep the lights on when the utility can’t provide power. The idea is that a tree falling on a power line or a transformer malfunction due to a heat-seeking squirrel shouldn’t compromise the nation’s defense.

But Balance Energy — a San Diego-based offshoot of British military contractor BAE Systems (s BA.L) — sees the bigger promise of microgrids in the private sector, not as islands of power unto themselves, but as trading partners, making and sharing electricity with each other and the grid at large.
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Microgrids: Utility vs. Private Ownership

Microgrids — office parks, college campuses or communities that can generate their own power and disconnect and reconnect from the grid at large at a moment’s notice — could be integral building blocks of the smart grid. That’s why Dave Pacyna, senior vice president of Siemens Energy’s North American transmission and distribution division, sees microgrids as a natural step in utilities’ smart grid plans.

Most microgrids of the future won’t be making and storing enough power to be grid-independent all of the time. Instead, microgrids will maintain a constant and complex relationship with the utility — buying power at some times, selling it back at others, either disconnecting from the grid to avoid a power outage or reconnecting to help the grid balance its way through instabilities, depending on the circumstances. So a central question for the future of microgrids is what will the relationship be with utilities — will it be utilities, or their customers, that pay for them and control them?
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Microgrids: Building Blocks of the Smart Grid

The term “microgrid” may conjure up images of self-sufficient military bases and remote outposts, generating and consuming power without any connections to the larger electricity grid. After all, backup generators that support multiple buildings — the bare-bones definition of a microgrid —  are already a mainstay of hospitals, refineries, data centers, semiconductor plants and other institutions that can’t afford to let the power go down, even for a second. Such stand-alone microgrids now add up to about 450 megawatts of commercial and industrial capacity, and another 322 megawatts in the campus and institutional sector, in the U.S., according to Pike Research.

But utilities, as well as their customers and partners, are increasingly looking past microgrids’ ability to “island” themselves to protect from broader power outages, and are seeking out ways they can use their on-site distributed power generation, and demand reduction and management systems to help the grid at large. Theoretically, these types of microgrids could help the outside grid keep its own power quality stable, helping entire neighborhoods ride through disruptions. And at the end of the road, microgrids could sell their generation and demand reduction back to the utilities they usually buy power from, giving would-be microgrid operators a whole new set of financial incentives to help bolster their business cases.
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Offline Gmail Grows Up, Moves Out of Labs

One of the first complaints about the upcoming Google Chrome OS is how it requires a constant connection to the web to be useful. That is a valid complaint about a “cloud computer”, as it needs the web to provide functionality. Those folks at Google (s goog) are no doubt aware of that concern, and have made Offline Gmail official.

Previously, Offline Gmail existed in the Labs as an experimental feature in Gmail. It used Google Gears to allow users to cache email on the local computer, so that access was possible even when offline. Aside from making Offline Gmail part of the official Gmail implementation, two features have been added to make it work more to the user’s liking. The first is the ability to choose which messages get cached locally, providing for more control for users with massive amounts of Gmail stored. The second is the ability to send attachments while offline, something previously not possible.

To get going with Offline Gmail just follow these instructions from Google:

  1. Click the “Settings” link in the top-right corner of Gmail.
  2. Click the “Offline” tab.
  3. Select “Enable Offline Mail for this computer.”
  4. Click “Save Changes” and follow the directions from there.