This week, we conclude our article series exploring the state of the grid and improving energy solutions for evolving digital infrastructure power needs. In this article, we’ll look at how new solutions around power and microgrids such as energy and resiliency as a service break legacy paradigms.
Leaders in the power and data center space still have misconceptions about power delivery, decarbonization, efficiency, and resiliency. A significant focus in working with power solutions today revolves around sustainable designs and ensuring more significant levels of resiliency.
While evaluating your energy transition toward decarbonization, every facility must make an informed decision based on organizational goals and requirements. Unfortunately, there is conflicting information and confusion in today’s market, so let’s look at some of those statements to separate fact from fiction.
First, let’s look at renewable natural gas.
Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), Separating Fact from Fiction
What is RNG?
Renewable natural gas, or RNG, is pipeline-quality gas that is interchangeable with conventional natural gas. RNG is the product of the decomposition of organic matter (biogas) that is processed to purity standards.
Is RNG a fossil fuel?
No, RNG is an ultra-clean and ultra-low-carbon natural gas alternative that is a mixture of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, primarily methane gas. It is captured when organic waste decomposes and releases biogas, which is collected and purified. Sources include landfills, livestock operations, wastewater treatment, and organic waste from industrial, institutional, and commercial entities.
How is RNG carbon negative?
RNG can be carbon negative depending on the source and its intended use. Instead of methane gas being released into the air, it is captured, processed, and then combusted in an engine where the byproduct is carbon dioxide and electricity. Because the carbon intensity of methane gas is 25 times greater than the carbon intensity of carbon dioxide, displacing methane results in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions.
With the definition in place, RNG provides a new avenue for data center and digital infrastructure leaders to design sustainable solutions and carbon- negative ones. Let’s examine some critical facts about RNG and how it impacts power delivery.
RNG is an ultra-clean and ultra-low- carbon natural gas alternative that is a mixture of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, primarily methane gas. It is captured when organic waste decomposes and releases biogas, which is collected and purified.
FACT: Diesel produces higher emissions than other fuel alternatives
The EPA regulates emissions from new diesel engine generators for NOx, VOCs, Particulate Matter (PM), and CO. Compared to these regulated emissions levels, solutions like those from Enchanted Rock’s generators are significantly cleaner.
For example, Enchanted Rock’s natural gas microgrids offer cleaner local emissions than diesel by orders of magnitude with practically no run limitations — allowing facilities to support both resiliency and sustainable strategies. These systems use natural gas, propane, and biogas to reduce or eliminate the carbon footprint.
On the topic of renewable natural gas, in a recent report from The Brattle Group, “Decarbonized Resilience: Assessing Alternatives to Diesel Backup Power,” four scenarios are evaluated as alternatives to diesel. The report finds that “relative to diesel, these alternatives can virtually eliminate the emission of pollutants such as NOx, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to local air quality problems.”
The numbers speak for themselves. As you can see in Figure 1, the Enchanted Rock emissions are far less than that of a Tier 4 diesel engine output across the board.
FACT: Natural Gas is More Resilient and Reliable than Diesel as a Fuel Source
A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), “A Comparison of Fuel Choice for Backup Generators,” analyzes the relative reliability of using natural gas compared to diesel as a backup fuel source. Their conclusion is: “We find that natural gas provides the largest additional reliability compared to diesel for regions that have high risks of long outages.”
Fuel availability and transportation also need to be considered. Natural gas is delivered through an incredibly robust underground infrastructure. Natural gas is readily available during crises when diesel refueling is not always possible due to terminal supply shortages or over-the-road hazards. Solutions like those from Enchanted Rock systems can run independently in island mode for days to weeks without requiring refueling logistics.
The reality is that constant conditioning and testing of engines leads to a higher level of reliability. Enchanted Rock natural gas-fueled microgrids run loaded while providing grid stability services, unlike diesel engines which are significantly limited in run hours.
MYTH: Diesel Backup is Always Less Expensive than Natural Gas Backup
We’ll discuss microgrids in general in the next section. However, it’s essential to focus on diesel backup first. While diesel generators can be less expensive on a standalone basis, that is not the case for a dual-purpose microgrid. By combining backup power with grid stability services, the net cost of natural gas services is lower than diesel. The NREL study concludes, “grid-connected generators can create positive economic value and have significantly lower failure rates than backup-only generators.”
Solutions like those from Enchanted Rock offer Managed Power Resiliency allowing customers to focus on their core business. At the same time, the partner provides local resiliency, managed assets, and is responsible for maintenance and operations. Partners like Enchanted Rock aggregate the generator capacity and sell it back to the grid to earn revenue when customers do not require backup power. These periodic runs allow the partner to subsidize the cost to customers substantially.
Some microgrid design costs are in the thousands of dollars, while more complex systems may cost more than a few million dollars.
A dual-purpose microgrid offers significant economic advantages for customers, including lowering the initial cost to implement and ongoing maintenance and fuel costs. While diesel averages typically $400-500/kw plus a lifetime of maintenance, natural gas microgrids run $150-300/kw with no added cost for maintenance — a significant difference!
FACT: There Are Real, Measurable Environmental Benefits of Using RNG in Microgrids
- It puts organic waste to good use while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
- Lowers emissions when methane (CH4) is captured and repurposed as RNG, rather than being released directly into the atmosphere or flared.
- It offers a carbon equivalent (CO2e) neutral energy source because it reduces methane emissions into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide.
- Because it is produced from actual waste (as opposed to crops grown specifically for fuel or diverted biomass that has other more beneficial uses), its production and use results in a net reduction in methane emissions.
Backing up a little, it’s vital to look at microgrids in general and understand the difference between legacy microgrid solutions and more modern implementations. During the latest AFCOM Data Center World Conference, a critical session dove into the differences between older and new microgrid solutions. In researching microgrids and learning about their capabilities, many will quickly run into three myths still in this industry. These were the discussion points from the AFCOM event.
Modern Microgrids: Fact vs. Fiction
Microgrids are too expensive.
Yes, there is an upfront cost of building a microgrid. However, it entirely depends on your use-case and the scale of the project. Some design costs are in the thousands of dollars, while more complex systems may cost more than a few million dollars. However, look at it from a healthcare data center perspective for a second. “The extreme case would be for your medical device to stop working,” says Dave Carter, the managing research engineer at the Schatz Energy Research Center and the lead technical engineer on microgrid projects. “The value of the power that the microgrid can provide when the rest of the county [in California] is de-energized is high.”
Another critical point comes from the previous section. As a dual-purpose microgrid solution, organizations participating in grid services or programs can actually allow the customer to deploy and operate a microgrid for the same or less cost than a traditional diesel backup system. These can become revenue-generating power services.
Microgrids are way too complicated and challenging to manage.
This used to be a sticking point for many. However, a lot has changed. Modern microgrids are a lot smarter, automated, and data-driven than ever before. Plus, the whole design around microgrid- as-a-service enables enterprises, healthcare providers, cities, and even data center operators to focus on what they’re good at and their business requirements. Today, the microgrid is easier to manage, has more integration points with power solutions, and significantly improves resiliency.
Microgrids are basically the same as a generator.
Microgrids are certainly not the same as traditional generators. First of all, if you have a diesel generator, there is a chance that you might be limited in
how much you can test it due to environmental regulations. Secondly, microgrids can be wholly independent and not rely on diesel fuel. Remember, they can source power from multiple locations. Finally, you can absolutely use a generator alongside a microgrid.
As an important additional point, natural gas- powered resiliency microgrids provide a path towards decarbonization, addressing local resiliency and grid stability needs. New solutions that focus on managed power resiliency help critical infrastructure reinvent how they approach electricity resiliency. Your microgrid partner can provide fully managed, clean natural gas-powered resiliency microgrids, support services, and flexible pricing options designed for fast, simple, and worry-free protection from extended grid outages.
Once people believe some of these false narratives around microgrids, they almost immediately turn to traditional generators for the answer. However, as soon as you see past a legacy mindset, you’ll quickly understand how emerging power solutions are reshaping managed power services, microgrids, and even becoming carbon negative.
When it comes to providing reliability and resiliency, many utilities, regulators, communities, and large energy users are re-evaluating their use of diesel and considering cleaner options such as RNG. This is just one of the new aspects of working with modern microgrids. Not only do you have the capability to turn power generation into revenue services, but you also impact your ESG goals and work to become carbon negative. Let’s dive into some of the latest
and newest designs in the power and microgrid space.
What’s New? Data-Driven, Efficient, Resilient, and Sustainable
The modern microgrid is far more advanced than even those systems from a few years ago. Modern microgrids are smart — they have sophisticated software and controls. Among other things, this intelligence allows them to ‘island’ from the primary grid. That means when they see the domino effect beginning to occur, microgrids can separate and protect themselves from the trouble appearing on the primary grid. They stop relying on the grid’s power plants and rely only on their own. They can also work intelligently in unison.
If energy prices are inexpensive at any point, your microgrid may choose to buy power from the central grid to serve its customers rather than use energy from, for example, its solar panels.
When everything is working right, the grid and the microgrid operate in tandem and serve one another. If a microgrid power plant fails, it can turn to the primary grid for supply. Or if the main grid runs low on power supply — as it sometimes does on hot summer afternoons when we all are running our air conditioning — it can turn to the microgrid for some help. The microgrid gets paid for providing services to the grid (known as capacity, demand response, and ancillary services), so the grid can generate revenue for the microgrid.
Furthermore, modern microgrids are data and software-driven. These advanced microgrid controllers leverage machine learning and data- driven solutions to track real-time changes in the power prices on the central grid and the overall functionality of the power system.
This intelligence can also prove to be highly cost- effective. If energy prices are inexpensive at any point, your microgrid may choose to buy power from the central grid to serve its customers rather than use energy from, for example, its solar panels. The microgrid’s solar panels will instead charge its battery systems. Later in the day, when grid power becomes expensive, the microgrid may discharge its batteries rather than using grid power.
Leveraging data-driven designs, microgrids operate via complex algorithms to ensure the best possible utilization of resources and constantly work to improve data center power economics. This level of orchestration and automation is all done instantaneously and autonomously. When leveraging solutions like Managing Microgrid Services, all of this data is fed to your provider, and they can take predictive action around a variety of patterns. From a customer perspective, there is no need for human intervention.
Another critical update revolves around the capability for microgrids to work as true resiliency- capable solutions. There’s good news on that front.
Resiliency and microgrid-as-a-service
A significant misconception around microgrids is that you’re buying a piece of equipment, and that’s it. However, modern microgrid solutions go far beyond onsite physical power solutions. New offerings revolve around microgrid-as-a-service where you as the customer never have to interact with the system.
This includes system design and engineering services, constriction and commissioning, and even financing. Furthermore, this includes operations as well as response field services. New as-a-service features include:
- 24/7 secure NOC
- Maintenance scheduling
- Asset management
- Market operations
- Billing and settlement
- Weekly site visits and loaded test runs
- 24/7 technician availability
Here’s the other key point — all of this is driven by data. Modern and sophisticated microgrid solutions produce data points that A.I. and machine learning engines then analyze. This data can provide information around anomalous behavior of parts if maintenance needs to be done, fluctuation in power that wasn’t expected, and even security metrics around access. Most of all, this information allows your microgrid to become predictive and prescriptive.
Furthermore, leaders in the space don’t just operate one or two microgrid solutions. Instead, they’ll have hundreds of sites that are all aggregating management data. Microgrid innovators can then use this information to improve your site’s efficiencies. All of this enhances reliability, helps you avoid product loss, reduces non-compliance, and ensures that you have constant capacity when it comes to power.
For the microgrid industry, this is revolutionary. The leading microgrid providers leverage data to make better decisions and improve overall operation. All of this brings further benefits to the customer without increasing complexity. Modern microgrids act as connected systems with numerous data points as a pivotal point to reduce complications around power deployment. Managing these deployments and data sets could become a challenge without a solid management ecosystem. This is where microgrid network operations centers (mNOC) come into the conversation.
The Connected Microgrid: mNOC Services
Ensuring power resiliency for customers requires continuous monitoring of microgrid sites across the United States. Acting as the nerve center for every active microgrid installation 24/7/365 in every market, solutions like those from the Enchanted Rock Microgrid Network Operations Center (mNOC) deploys proprietary software and integrated processes and technologies that together ensure worry-free, long- duration, reliable power to customers by helping mNOC operators identify and address issues before they become problems.
The mNOC system runs on proprietary microgrid aggregation and control software in a secure Tier 4 data center, allowing experienced operators to monitor asset conditions and energy markets and manage all status, security, maintenance, scheduling, and dispatch in real-time. The mNOC also interfaces in real-time with retail and wholesale markets, and energy trading experts manage the process of providing grid capacity and ancillary services based on the unique requirements of each electricity market program and revenue opportunity.
A variety of sophisticated, quick-response microgrid support activities take place under the supervision of energy engineers and trading experts, including:
- Monitoring weather and stability of the electric power grid
- Autonomous activation of microgrids during a loss of utility voltage
- Monitoring and diagnosis of all comms and equipment installations in the field
- Maintenance management and resource optimization
- Upgrade of program management
- Monitoring and forecasting of electricity market conditions
- Optimized dispatch for excess energy sales
Before we go too much further, it’s vital to touch on one more important point: cybersecurity.
Cybersecurity and the microgrid
Believe it or not, it’s not just about power delivery. There’s a big concern about security within the grid. Microgrids can disconnect from the grid if there is an issue. Intelligent microgrids can do this proactively, leveraging data analytics, anomalous behavior/power monitoring, and even user access protocols.
Enchanted Rock has a 24/7 secure network operations center (NOC) that proactively monitors the activities of more than 600 deployed and active microgrid deployments.
Basically, in cases of an attack, you can completely disconnect from the grid and ensure that you still have reliable power sources. This is a specific, proactive measure to mitigate the risk of the grid being impacted by a cybersecurity threat. And this is something that Enchanted Rock offers and works with very closely. As part of their turnkey solution, they have a 24/7 secure network operations center (NOC) that proactively monitors the activities of more than 600 deployed and active microgrid deployments. This data intelligence and aggregation level allow Enchanted Rock to respond to power and even security issues faster than anyone else.
Finally, let’s focus on an acronym that’s seemingly on everyone’s mind: ESG.
Microgrids and ESG
To start, it’s essential to understand what ESG is and how it impacts organizations briefly. Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) evaluate a firm’s collective conscientiousness for social and environmental factors. It is typically a score compiled from data collected surrounding specific metrics related to intangible assets within the enterprise. Why is this important, and how does it connect to microgrids and RNG? RNG is being used as a direct power source for microgrid solutions for the first time. This is a massive ESG game-changer for data center leaders aiming to become carbon neutral and even carbon negative.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. This reinforces RNG’s effectiveness for a company’s ESG initiatives and underlying mitigation for downstream global warming. Further, the United States recently released its new U.S. Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan. The U.S., along with more than 100 countries, recently signed the Global Methane Pledge at the COP26 summit, committing the countries to reduce their emissions by 30% by 2030.
This is important because, for the first time, new microgrid solutions like those from Enchanted Rock are directly integrating RNG into their power delivery solution. RNG results from capturing and delivering methane emissions from decomposing waste at landfills, agricultural waste, and water treatment. When injected into the existing natural gas pipeline system, it displaces the use of fossil-based gas, thus reducing the carbon equivalent emissions to zero or negative, depending on the source of the RNG.
For partners like Enchanted Rock, this advancement represents a history of clean energy innovation dating back to 2012 when the company pioneered cleaner generators beginning with EPA Tier 4 diesel and further evolution to ultra-clean natural gas. Enchanted Rock has already reduced the local pollutants of backup power solutions by over 99% and carbon intensity by 10%. With this announcement, Enchanted Rock will now reduce the carbon intensity of backup power by 100%.
“We’ve heard repeatedly from our customers that they’re seeking to both reduce local pollution from diesel backup and to meet their robust ESG goals,” said Allan Schurr, Chief Commercial Officer of Enchanted Rock.
Download the entire special report, “The State of the Grid: Improving Energy Solutions for Evolving Digital Infrastructure Power Needs” courtesy of Enchanted Rock for an exclusive look at real-world use cases and how working with leading partners can shift your power designs.