In the world of power a new idea is making it rise across industry - welcome to the world of smart microgrids! Graham Staples is a pioneer in this industry and helps end users make the dream of having a smart microgrid a reality as the Power and Energy Group Manager at RoviSys. Seeing that this is a new topic for many Graham does a fantastic job of breaking down what entails a smart microgrid solution and how the technology has evolved. With the rise of smart devices in the power world end users now have more dynamic control than ever to react to events and provide the ultimate in reliable power solutions.
Areas such as monitoring and safety are being impacted in huge ways because of this technology. Imagine a world where we can remove personnel from an electrical substation simply by having impactful data at your fingertips. It's happening daily and Graham explains how companies that want to improve their position with personnel safety are capitalizing on these enhancements.
Once you hear about the power of these systems you'll quickly be asking how do I start. Not to worry - Graham breaks down typical road maps to begin these projects and even tackles some of the most common headwinds you may face. This is a cutting edge and exciting idea that is making a huge impact in the industrial world!
Guest: Graham Staples - Group Manager - Power & Energy at RoviSys
Host: Chris Grainger
Executive Producer: Adam Sheets
Podcast Editor: Andi Thrower
Preserving Power on Campus
Powering the Future
I think that we're in a world we are in order to meet the demand, this is what is going to be necessary. The implementation of microgrids is going to be necessary.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I'm your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world.
Welcome EECO Asks Why. Today we have an idea episode and we're gonna be talking about something we haven't done before. We're talking about smart microgrids. And we're going to have Mr. Graham Staples, who was the Group Manager of Power & Energy at RoviSys, walk us through this. So welcome Graham.
Thanks, Chris. Glad to be here.
Yeah, man. How are you doing today?
I'm doing pretty well. Beautiful Monday.
It is. I'm excited for this one, like I mentioned in the intro, we haven't talked about smart microgrids and maybe just lay of base for those listeners out there where this may be a new topic for them as well. What exactly is that?
Well, that's a really good question. And I always answered this question by saying a microgrid means a hundred different things to a hundred different people. You hear about them a lot in the news, you hear about them a lot and trade publications and so forth, but really it's any distribution of electricity when primarily, they have to generate assets that are in that distribution network. So you're able to generate your own power or you're associated with a group like a utility or a municipality or cooperative that can generate their own power. And you're controlling where that power goes.
So that constitutes a microgrid, but a microgrid could be the size of a city or a region of the United States, or it could be as small as a single industrial campus or a university campus or a space like that. It could be even smaller. It depends on really who you're
Okay. So, I mean, it sounds like they can be found in a lot of different places, but maybe how has that technology evolved? Because now we're talking about smart microgrids. I'm assuming that means in the past they used to be just microgrids. So now we had that smart component. So how has that evolution looked?
Yeah. So for a long time, you've got your substations and your switchgear and your relays and breakers and so forth. A lot of people are familiar, even if you're not in the power space. A lot of people are familiar with the power panel on your house, where you can go and you can flip the little breaker and turn, the electricity off to a room or a section of your house. You just extrapolate that out to lots of higher voltage applications and bigger electricity loads.
And that's what you're looking at when you're talking about the control of a microgrid. Both in a smart sense and in a legacy sense, but it used to be that, and still is for a lot of people that there are just these legacy breakers that are protecting you in the event of power surges or lightning strikes or shorting or just any sort of power event that could cause a surge and damage equipment or loads that are on that network.
Those devices would just do their protective settings. They're very reliable. They're super solid. Nothing's going to really go wrong. They're very well tested and have run in industry forever and ever. They just set and forget that stuff. You've got engineers who come up with the protection schemes and you load them in and that's how they run.
Well, smart microgrids allow you to have a more dynamic control where the way that the microgrid reacts and the way that these pieces of equipment react to protect you, can be done in a more intelligent way. So take the case of a hospital. You may be performing, you may have an entire day of the week where you're performing some type of sensitive surgery in one wing of a hospital, but that wing of the hospital may not be active and performing those surgeries every day of the week. May only happen on a scheduled period.
So now when a smart grid environment, you can say, you know what, if we happen to have a power event, we happen to have an outage. It is totally impossible for us to drop the load for this critical surgery. Right? You've got human lives at stake. So I need to say this is the highest priority load. And I can't let anything happen to that. So all my generating capacity, any backup procedures that I have, any transitions to another source, if the major utility drops me, I have to get power to this wing of the hospital.
But then let's say that's a Monday then on Tuesday well, that wing of the hospital's empty. So I'm going to change the way that the microgrid responds to events. I'm going to say, you know what? Deprioritize this wing of the hospital as a protected area. If you got to drop a load, now, all I'm probably running is lights and air conditioning, if that don't worry about it, drop that, let the power go out to that stuff because there's no risk or minimal risk.
And instead, I'm over here, making sure that the other wing of the hospital that you know is cycled through to be on schedule for that particular day of the week is being protected. The other thing that's Mike smart, microgrids allow you to do is to get real information about the status of everything at a centralized location.
So again, going back to the old way. You've got the substations. They're big gray metal boxes. They've got red and green colors on it indicating the status of things, but primarily you're getting in a truck or you're getting in your truck or in your walking boots and you're going out into the field and you're looking at it.
You're laying eyes on it to see what the status of everything that's or to do any type of investigation about, let's say you have an event, you got to go out there and you've got to pull files. You've got to pull event record data and stuff off of those devices and say, okay, now I've got to pour through this back at the office.
Well, smart microgrids allow you to say from a centralized control room, I can look at, with a campus example. I can look at the entire campus as a single line diagram, and I can see exactly what sources are feeding exactly what loads, what the current power conditions are. I've got measurements at each of these locations, so I can see okay what kind of load do I have here?
You can test things. You can trigger, like test cycles for generation and so forth from central locations or from HMIs that the programming all exists in a logic controller. So it's not relying on people pushing buttons, pulling levers, throwing breakers manually. It's doing it via intelligent control. More similar to an industrial control system.
Just a couple of things. I just pulled from what you were just saying there, you can really direct that power strategically, the way that you design it. And then you also have that decision-making ability as from a monitoring standpoint, it sounds like that's next level monitoring when you have that smart microgrid in place.
Yeah. We like to refer to it, a lot of folks refer to it as situational awareness. If I'm the energy manager for a campus. It's tremendously powerful for me to be able to look at a screen and say, okay, here's what's going on right now today and manage that, I can dispatch resources. I can do advanced planning. I can say, okay, tomorrow when I need to do maintenance over here, I'm going to switch my source to somewhere that's going to be more reliable for, let's say my chiller plant. Like I'm going to be doing something that causes an outage. So I'm going to reconfigure the distribution of power just from right here.
And, bearing in mind that for safety reasons, a lot of folks like to be able to go physically still out to the substation because you don't want to be making too many changes without visually verifying that there's no life safety, risks and so forth, but still being able to see that from a management standpoint. It's tremendously powerful for both planning and control of what's going on and reacting to events because ultimately at the end of the day, what the microgrid is trying to do is prevent you from having an outage due to something that's unforeseen. That's one of its most critical applications.
For sure, for the industrial end-user out there, Graham. Are there any typical problems that you see that maybe push people towards the microgrid solution that maybe they hadn't thought of in the past?
Everybody is aware and, routinely thinks about what to do if there's an outage. Like I mentioned, the ultimate base function of this is to protect you from losing power, but there are a lot of other applications that we see people starting to become aware of and participate in.
Say you're an industrial customer and you've got a generator plant or the capability to generate electricity on-site. Usually, with your utility, you've got some type of power purchasing agreement that says you're going to pay X number of dollars per kilowatt-hour, but if you go over, like in the summertime when the utilities are taxed, because we're all using our air conditioner in the hot North Carolina August. The power company is going to say to this industrial customer you can never, ever exceed a certain amount or else we're going to penalize you because that's difficult for us to deal with.
So you can make a decision through monitoring this and your microgrid and through looking at the data that's provided through this smart, intelligent layer that you've applied to an old standard system. You can look at that information you can say, okay, I know that at this point in production, I'm bringing on a smelter or activating an oven. And my load is going to increase. I'm going to exceed this peak limitation that the utility has put on me, but I've got the ability to generate power too.
So I'm, my own power plant if I want to be. So now you can say, okay, let me spin up. My generators. I'll generate however many megawatts of electricity that's necessary to keep me below that peak point. And the smart microgrid will help you to make sure that you're not violating any arrangements that you may have with utility while you do that as well. So now we can avoid peak. That's peak shaving.
And it's also a financial consideration. Take it away from even the energy management or the utility management folks on an industrial site. Now you're talking about financial considerations and you're talking about product manufacturing and the interface of the smart grid and what it can do for your plant manager or for the bottom line out of that plant.
And, we've had customers who, they'll take, what's typically an aluminum smelting operation and they will effectively become a power plant because it's more effective for them from a financial standpoint, to sell their power back into the grid than it is to make their products temporarily.
That's awesome. So, I mean, We may have a listener out there, Graham, and maybe they're management, they're plant management whatever they may be, but you got their interest and they're on board. I want to get started. Is there a roadmap? I mean, what are some steps that you would recommend people to really consider to begin?
Typically these assets that we want to be monitoring and controlling have lived in this kind of invisible space, it's like we talked about with the old dynamic of microgrids or kind of, I guess what some may still consider the standard dynamic of microgrids is you put it in and it does what it's supposed to do and you don't have to worry about it.
You don't, look at it or touch it or deal with it very often because it's not on the plant floor. It's supporting the plant floor. Really what we start with is we got to see what you've got. We've got to have a conversation about what is in existence. Where are the loads being distributed around campus or around the plant. What level of smart technology do you maybe already have without even knowing it? Because some of these devices, even legacy devices have a lot of information that could be put onto a bus network and pulled into a central location, it's just that nobody did that, it wasn't an aspect of the original installation.
And then where are you deficient in smart technology? Like where are you using legacy stuff that's old enough that you need to be considering not just for the new smart applications, but you need to be considering this has reached end of life and you need to get some new technology in here. So that is a great starting point for people is just to evaluate what they have is their installed base and really map it out.
Oftentimes, I know Chris we've had these conversations before, people put they have their drawing sets, but they're the drawing sets for the as installed. And they've been sitting in a bottom of a panel or wherever they've been, some dusty, old file cabinet for a long time. Lots of changes have been made and they're not exactly the most accurate drawing set, taking the time and doing a front-end engineering design activity, a feed study and saying, okay, here's what we have let's update all of our drawings to current, and then let's look at where we can go and get the most bang for our buck.
We also ask people two questions really. Are you already having issues? Whether it be power quality, or power delivery inside the plant, are you having places that when you have an event you're dropping load and it's causing you to have to restart a whole production batch or something of that nature?
The other thing is, are there places where they know that they can save energy if they had more awareness? So they can tie that to the way that production operates. If they're not having the obvious quality or obvious delivery issues where they can say, you know, yeah we, lose utility feed and we've got to scrap a whole batch.
Maybe it's we need to talk about how you could run your operations a little bit more efficiently as it pertains to the cost of the electricity that you consume. And we can start to marry those things up and tie the power systems into the manufacturing systems and that starts to move away from, I think, what most people would consider to be microgrids into more of just your advanced intelligence and data application space.
Because now you're starting to get into that world where you're collecting a bunch of information, a bunch of data, and you're trying to. Do analytics on it to tie it into all sorts of other systems, including like business and delivery systems that you know, are well outside of the space of your traditional microgrid.
Yeah. And just to clarify too, it sounded like the launching point to have all these conversations is that install-based evaluation where you're understanding what's there. And then from there, you can take what you and your engineers and the team that you work with, you come up with those recommendations in those potential paths.
Absolutely. Yep. .And anybody, you know, we were talking about predominantly from the standpoint of the plant model, you know, the industrial model where you've got a manufacturing line that this is all supporting, but now we can also talk about from the standpoint of campuses and district energy solutions where, these folks have lots of personnel, we're very highly aware of the microgrid or of their power distribution systems, for them that install-based evaluation is still important.
That's still where we would typically start. Although they already have a typically, because it's their day-to-day life. They live with it. They already have a high degree of knowledge of what's there, but where we have the conversation with those folks is about where they could take it if they had some additional smart technology that was being applied. When you've got a utility manager or a power distribution, medium voltage distribution group, they've got maintenance and operators and management, their whole infrastructure already established at a campus somewhere.
That those guys are power delivery gurus. They can tell you exactly which breaker needs to be switched to get power where it's needed and protect these loads like we've been talking about, but they often aren't aware of what the smart applications can really do for them. So we want to have a conversation about where are they spending their time.
Do they have guys in trucks, just scrambling around responding to radio calls all day? Could we centralize some of this information? Could we get it at their fingertips? That's the other thing, getting root cause analysis information or trending into mobile devices, literally in the hands of these guys who have to otherwise go read it off a chart can be tremendously helpful with comparatively minimum changes to their existing system.
For sure. How about headwinds, Graham. We know that there's always some particularly with projects like this any common headwinds that you would just want to advise people as they're listening to this topic to think about going into a project with a microgrid?
Graham: 15:51 Yeah. So common headwinds are the lack of infrastructure. In order to make a smartgrid work, it has to communicate. All these devices have to talk to one another and be aware of one another and communicate effectively. So we often see like, you go and you talk even to those utility groups and they say, yeah, we'd love to do something like this, but I've just got islands.
I've just got these systems that don't talk one to the other, and I'm not going to dig trenches and lay fiber to get this, very remote substation to be talking. The answer to that or the conversation that we'd like to have when we encounter those headwinds is to bring in our networking specialists and talk about what types of alternative technologies for remote communication, batching of sending of information, edge analytics, that's another big terminology that you'll hear in the trades these days. What can we do to more specifically and intelligently get that information from where it's generated to where it's needed that maybe saves them a tremendous investment in some cases of trying to lay fiber or do the infrastructure development. That's a major one that we encounter quite frequently.
I got you. Now. How about there's listeners who sometimes examples, paint that picture. I know you got a couple of great ones that we talked about, just getting ready for this conversation. What can you share there that may help put it into a better context?
Sure. So, I'll share an example from St. Joseph's Hospital. Okay. These folks knew that they needed I don't know if all the listeners will recollect this or where everybody's sitting while they're hearing this, but most people will recollect Superstorm Sandy and the impact that it had on New York. I think that was in 2012. A lot of infrastructure, a lot of electrical delivery was impacted. And so there were regulations that came out of that and evaluations that came out of the response and how they could better handle keeping power in their critical areas, such as hospitals, when you have an event like that.
And one of the things that came from that is St. Joseph's Hospital. So we're going to add the capability to generate power ourselves to a greater extent than they already had which was a massive project. That was lots of people. It was designers and contractors and engineers of record and all the normal alphabet soup of people who are participating in a giant capital expenditure like that.
And RoviSys was a part of it. We were the systems integrator brought in, they had an existing utility plant control system and they had the microgrid control system, which was going to help them as I articulated before with the considerations in a hospital environment about where loads need to go, they wanted to be able to control and prioritize what happened when they had an event and also incorporate the ability to generate their own power into their existing plant control system.
So they wanted this to be an all-encompassing application that the interface seamlessly with all the stuff they already did from a utility and support of the hospital standpoint. So there was a lot of design activity, as you can imagine what the project like that where we laid out in great detail, what would be delivered from our scope. And then also from all the rest of the contractors who were involved, the scope that was going to be delivered.
We do a lot of internal testing on a system like this before it gets put in the field, as you can imagine. So we did extensive internal tests and factory acceptance testing, where we have the panels all fabricated and basically everything, but the actual relay is connected. So we had all the controls and logic staged in our facility where the customer was able to come in and, you know, we can measure the outputs and see that we're sending the right signals and that all these events are happening in a simulated way that makes everybody really comfortable.
We've taken that a step further recently actually, even since the St Joseph's Hospital project. And we now have a very extensive test bench where we're able to put actual relays in place and simulate a real-world environment. There's no load, there's no high voltage or medium voltage power, but you can actually go to the relay faceplates and see that all these things are behaving as they should. So that's been tremendously helpful in testing all these different scenarios. But then you've obviously got another component which is delivery to site and the commissioning aspect of it.
So at St. Joseph's, we went out and we commissioned these systems separately. So on the one hand, we had a load management system, which was helping them to do that prioritization and do that handling of load when they had an event, it also helped them to make sure that they maintain the regulation import from the utility.
So there's usually stuff where you're not allowed to export power to utility, unless you've got an agreement to do so, they don't want you to put power into their grid if they don't have control over it. So you got to put in protection to keep that from happening. So we commissioned all of that. And then we commissioned the process control side of it, where we integrated it into their existing plant control system. They could see everything from essentially one screen or one location. That's a typical process for us.
That's very cool. I know you guys have a wonderful article and we'll make sure that's in the show notes for our listeners. They can go check that out because that St Joseph's example that Graham, you just walked us through, it definitely pulls it all together on the smartgrid. So thank you so much for that. And I was thinking, as you were walking through that, there's a lot of people just in that project who were involved, to make a project like that happen.
So who is typically involved, from the end-user standpoint, as well as partners like yourself to make a smartgrid, smart microgrid project actually come to fruition?
So usually we are interfacing with that facilities and utilities group. So the folks who are responsible, keeping the lights on, keeping the water, running, keeping steam provided, heating and air conditioning, working on either a campus or in an industrial setting.
You've got your SWAT team of experts who's responsible for all of that. They're integral to this process. You cannot do a job without those folks being heavily involved. And in addition to that, there's typically an engineer of record. That's somebody who's helping either define the design. They're either defining the entirety of the design or they're helping to define it. They're stamping the drawings and, putting their seal of approval on everything. And they're also evaluating, deciding on the protective relay settings that need to go in. On a larger capital job like St Joseph's Hospital.
There may be a general contractor who pulls all this stuff together on behalf of the customer. Very essential on a large job to have that coordination component. And that overall oversight of the job you've got electrical tradespeople. So you've got electricians who, have to be savvy in working in a medium voltage or even a 480-volt environment. There is life safety risk, and you're working in hot systems at times. So you've got to have folks who have that understanding and that experience cause that's very important.
In addition to that, when we get into the plant environments, the industrial, manufacturing environments. It goes best if you have some representation from the product or plant manufacturing side because you really want to understand what some of the trials and troubles are of those folks as well, and make sure that what you're doing is addressing needs that maybe the utility folks don't get exposed to they're just not in those conversations that are not in your daily operations planning, debriefs, or, your shift handoffs. You want to hear from those people and make sure that they've got a voice as you build a system like this, so you can address their needs.
It's, it sounds like it's just across the board with so many different tentacles and a lot of communication. And then and then when you had the smart component, I guess at some point you're crossing that IT, OT bridge as well, right?
Absolutely. Yes. We've all seen in the news, the hacks and ransomware attacks and so forth. The attention to the security, cybersecurity of the systems that we deliver has never been higher. It's never been more important than it is today. It's critical infrastructure. These systems that you're putting in place, a microgrid delivers the power to where it is needed. It's a prime target for bad actors to come in and try and take control of this. If that does happen, there are serious consequences to events like that.
So we like to air gap an IT and OT personnel that we work with. They like to air gap these systems, meaning keep them as isolated as they can, but that's a difficult balance, right? Because we're talking about putting important data into the hands of people who need it, who may be on a different network, you know, they may be on your general plant or campus network and you're not wanting to create vulnerabilities by giving unnecessary access to this critical infrastructure. So that conversation is very delicate. It needs a lot of attention that it's a lot of intentional planning about what you're trying to accomplish and how you're going to get that done.
You need to set it up the way that we try and deliver these, we want it to be something that is maintainable for our customers. We don't just want to deliver this and then the infrastructure itself never gets looked at again, you need patching, you need vulnerability assessments. You need occasional penetration testing and things of that nature to make sure that the system stays as strong as it can stay throughout its life cycle, which can be, 20 and 30 years long. So you've got this continuous upkeep that goes along with that.
No doubt, I'm thinking out there right now, Graham, we've covered so much on the microgrids and there may be listeners that they want to get started. They want to learn, they, maybe they want to take their career down this path. Where do they start? Where should they start investing some time or studying to really get into this?
So in a university setting, like if we're talking about students who are coming up, electrical engineering, power systems is a discipline inside of electrical engineering. Not everybody goes that direction. There's a lot of different variability inside that degree, but there's a tremendous amount to be learned about these systems. I always recommend anybody with just a budding interest in power systems technology and microgrids to, you know, investigate that type of coursework. If they're in the environment where they can do that, if they're young enough or starting over in their college career, that's always a great place to go.
Today, there are a lot of great organizations that participate in this industry. So there are clean tech organizations in the Raleigh area. There are international organizations around power systems, campus energy systems, district energy. So lots of good resources out there. Also there are lots of good publications available, so there are trade publications, magazines, white papers and scholarly articles that come out all the time on this.
Some of that can be a little bit of deep water. You have to choose wisely, but just paying attention to the trends and technology. And honestly, Chris, if you watch the news. We talked about the hacking situations and the ransomware situations a little bit, pay attention to what these folks are saying is actually being affected. The ability to maintain keeping the lights on is a prime target for attack. And when you're listening to these people or reading these articles in newspapers and publications online. They're explaining what these systems are for the layman so that you can understand it if you don't necessarily have a deep background in this type of technology.
The other place that I would recommend that people go to learn, or the other discipline that I would recommend people learn is control systems, because really what we're doing here if you take a step back and look at what smart microgrids are, it's the application of technology that's been in place for decades now at the plant floor. You're talking about doing intelligent, automated control of a system that is essentially a state machine.
It's delivering and it's delivering power in this current configuration and you lose the ability to deliver that power. You reconfigure the state machine so that you're delivering power from another place. At the end of the day, that aspect of it is not incredibly complicated at that high level.
What we're doing is we're applying technology that's been out there for, like I say, decades, to be able to give you some insight and some control over what that state machine is actually doing. So understanding what's out there from a control standpoint, what are control systems, what do they do? What's a PLC? What's a distributed control system, a DCS? Just learning a little bit more about that can really be tremendously helpful when you're thinking about how you're going to do a smart microgrid or implement a smart microgrid, learning some of those facts.
Good advice. And we'll try to link some of those resources you mentioned in the show notes. It's definitely a lot of different areas that people couldn't invest in their own time and to get better. So thank you for that Graham. And this has been wonderful. We call it EECO Asks Why we usually wrap up with the why so I'm curious here on what the, why would be here for you around why are microgrids so critical for that future growth? And you were talking about safety. We talked about the way industry is expanding in the future. So what is the why behind the microgrids?
Well, Chris, I think for me the why it's kind of an interesting question because I think it's happening. I want to participate in this because it is inevitable. Like we are all going to be in a situation where we have renewable or legacy or coal-fired or gas-fired utility being provided to us that we have a tremendous degree of control over. You're seeing it start to pop up now where lots of homes have solar panels on them or battery walls installed in them.
All that technology is going to scale. It's going to be something that, major, large industrials have the capability to do. We're not getting rid of natural gas generation, anytime, I don't think in my career, but you're going to see the shrinking of those assets so that you can put them at industrial sites or on campuses. You're already seeing that. It's just going to get easier and easier. It's just going to get easier and it's gonna get cheaper, I believe.
If you pay attention to the things that major utility companies say are going to be coming down the pipeline it's these shrinking circles of control, each of which can be looked at as a microgrid right down to the end consumer at your house. Whether you choose to, if you have a power outage, whether you choose to keep the lights or the AC on or run, the washing machine will be a choice that you can make pretty easily probably from your phone.
So, you know, you just extrapolate that out into the broader industry and into these campus environments and industrial manufacturing plants. So the why for me, the why do I participate in this? Why do I get excited about microgrids is because the opportunity is gigantic and I want to be, I want RoviSys to be and I want to be at the forefront of setting the pace here and being a participant in this sea change that I think we're going to see in already are seeing coming down the line.
No doubt. And that is why I'm a friend we asked you to walk us through this is because your passion behind it. So this has been wonderful. A lot of show notes here. Listeners go check that out and you can connect with Graham directly on LinkedIn, check out RoviSys, and the wonderful things they're doing there. So you'll find all those links there. And Graham, thank you so much for taking the time and explaining smart microgrids to us.
Well, thanks, Chris. I really enjoyed it and I hope your listeners get something out of it. And I'm happy to talk further with anybody who wants to reach not to me directly.
Absolutely, man, have a great day.
You too. Thanks.
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