There are consumers and industry professionals out there who believe microgrids could be an interesting solution for the future. However, they’ve already become an increasingly popular fix for an overloaded and aging electrical grid. The source of the misperception could be found in the fact that a company behind 85% of the installed microgrid sites in the United States has deliberately stayed under the radar. Until now.
By Chad Elmore
From the day it was founded, Wake Forest, N.C.-based PowerSecure has focused on developing distributed energy systems and the integration of multiple energy resources for microgrid deployments, including Tier 4 final diesel engines, natural gas, fuel cells, batteries and renewable energy such as wind and solar. Its lifecycle approach to microgrids means it designs, builds, owns and operates them.
The company has already installed more than 2 gigawatts and currently controls 1.6 gigawatts of distributed generation systems. They are supported by an independent service network that’s currently in 29 states and by 165 technicians.
The firm has long held a close relationship with energy providers nationwide, often working with and for the utilities – indeed, part of its success has been predicated on the fact that many of its employees come from that world. That bond is stronger today, as PowerSecure is a subsidiary of Southern Company, an energy firm with 9 million customers.
“We have a lot of experience building microgrids and we believe we are the leader in the industry, but PowerSecure is not well-known,” said Eric Dupont, executive vice president and chief commercial officer, PowerSecure. “A lot of people don’t know about this company, and that was very intentional for a number of years. Early on, we did not want the PowerSecure name out there because we didn’t want the competition to know what we were doing.
“Now we’re part of Southern Company and have a very different mindset. The industry has evolved significantly since our founding in 2000 and it’s important for us to get our brand out there. It’s important to be recognized for what we’ve done throughout our history and what we’re looking to do in the future.”
Several years ago, the company began a Reliability Growth Management program that looked at the complete microgrid system, from engines to switchgear controls. Recent figures show that from January 2016 to February 2019, its fleet registered 64,075 start demands, 5237 system-years in service and 24.5 years of total system run time. The research, conducted by third-party consulting engineering firm MTechnology, showed a 98.7% reliability rating, above the national average of 95.4%.
“I go to a lot of conferences and speak to a lot of different people,” said Mark Martyak, chief sales officer and cofounder of PowerSecure, “and it is always amazing to me how many people act like microgrids are still a science experiment. They’re not a science experiment to us.”
Sharing a secret
As part of its goal to no longer be the industry’s best kept secret, PowerSecure introduced its Microgrid 360 project at its Durham, N.C., campus last year. It is a fully functional microgrid that’s part of the guided tour now given to clients as well as local school groups. It also allows the company to enjoy the cost benefits of peak shaving as well as an uninterrupted flow of power for its office, warehouse and factory buildings when severe weather moves off the Carolina coast and heads inland.
The microgrid consists of the firm’s PowerBlock gen-set equipped with two Tier 4 final Volvo Penta 16 L diesel engines (there’s room for four but this layout provided room for tours to get a closer look), a solar array atop its main building, Bloom fuel cells, battery energy storage system and its own Nexgear switchgear. It’s managed by the company’s proprietary PowerControl platform. The campus can be taken off the public utility and run by the microgrid with nary a flicker in the plant’s LED lights.
“When customers visit Microgrid 360, it becomes clear to them that we are the product innovators and solution architects that can help them devise the right system to maximize reliability, economic value and durability,” said Dupont during the ribbon cutting last October. “As a company that centrally monitors and manages our customers’ microgrids 24/7/365, we have the unique advantage of knowing what products and components really stand the test of time.”
Monitoring and data collection
Customers can opt to have PowerSecure monitor, maintain and manage microgrid and mission-critical power systems. Detailed information from an array of sensors transmit data in real time to one of two operation centers. The data enables the firm to implement proactive maintenance procedures as well as investigate unusual patterns. It’s also proved invaluable when it comes to continuous improvement.
“We’ve been remotely monitoring our systems since 2006, so we know how many times they’ve been called to operate,” said Dupont. “We have 12 terabytes of data sitting in our database related to system profiles, performance, customer load profiles and more. We utilize all of that data to provide better services and solutions for our customers.”
“And because our units are also designed to run for load management, they get up to 300 hours a year of run time on average,” said Martyak, “so we see patterns that nobody else with standby systems get to see. That’s how we’ve been able to do the continuous improvements we have and maintain our dedication to quality.
“We’re not selling a solution that pulls together random pieces in the hopes that they will work together. Even though we offer highly creative approaches for each application, we manufacturer almost everything in-house and we test everything before it leaves the factory.”
A key component of the company’s installed microgrids is its PowerBlock product family of integrated generation paralleling systems. Modular in design and enclosed in purpose-built ISO shipping containers, they range in power from 625 kW to 3750 KW with up to six engines in a single enclosure. Each engine is part of a 625 kW power generator assembly, each paralleled and synchronized together with control systems developed by the company and over-current protection breakers.
Depending on the application, customers can select between the 16 L Volvo Penta TWD1643GE Tier 2 diesel engine or the 16 L TWD1673GE Tier 4 diesel engine. Stage 5 versions, engine model TWD1683GE, will soon join the PowerSecure line up for international customers. Natural gas engines from PSI are also an option.
Depending on the engine, the units can be used in emergency standby applications as well as for prime power or peak shaving.
PowerSecure and Volvo Penta have long worked as partners in the power generation market.
“We started working together with PowerSecure when they began building their own generators in 2010,” said Darren Tasker, vice president, Industrial Sales, Volvo Penta of the Americas. “Since then, we’ve seen a steady increase in the segments they do business in, including microgrids, data centers and so on.”
Beginning in 2016, the two companies enhanced their business relationship with a formal partnership agreement. It was renewed recently and runs through 2022.
“This is an agreement where both sides have commitments to achieve ambitious growth targets in strategic segments,” said Tasker. “Volvo Penta is making investments and ensuring the engines and components are suitable for new and existing segments, with many of these unique features only available for PowerSecure. PowerSecure makes investments in the complete generator systems together with sales, service and support for these segments. This is a close partnership using the strengths of both organizations to create added value for customers. I’m convinced the growth we’ll see in the coming years will exceed everyone’s expectations.”
Beyond the PowerSecure’s own Microgrid 360 system in North Carolina, a tour of its installed microgrids would crisscross the country and cover applications ranging from military bases to small island communities to hospitals.
The Yuma Marine Corp Air Station (MCAS) supports aerial weapons training and other aviation-based weapon systems. Power outages there pose a threat to national security, and when 7 million people lost power throughout the region in 2011, Arizona Public Service and MCAS set out to find a microgrid solution.
PowerSecure built a 25 MW system using Volvo Penta Tier 4 final engines. The system gives the facility 100% standby power, and the financial advantage gleaned by using autonomous frequency control and peak load management meant APS could provide the system with zero capital expenditures and no change to its annual operating costs.
“From day one, this business was founded on providing an economic solution to the customer. It wasn’t just about putting up a big piece of diesel generation out behind the customer’s site and hope that it runs when it’s needed,” said Eric Dupont. “Our approach was to figure out how to utilize those assets to not only provide emergency power but also reduce their costs through peak shaving or other opportunities.”
On Ocracoke Island, a small community in North Carolina’s Outer Banks that is only accessible by water, high summer temperatures and an increase in tourism taxed the a 3 MW diesel generator the island was using for back-up power and peak shaving.
PowerSecure installed a microgrid comprised of PowerBlock generation systems, 15 kW of solar, 175 smart thermostats, 1 MWh of battery storage and its own NexGear switchgear.
“The biggest competitor we have is do nothing,” said Jim Smith, group executive of PowerSecure. “In this space today there is still the option of not having to do anything and still get by. As we enter new markets and talk with new customers, we’re approaching them from an efficiency standpoint. When the application is right, we also talk about return on investment and the ability to provide resiliency.”
In York, Pa., the trauma center at WellSpan Health’s flagship WellSpan York Hospital treats more than 2000 patients a year in a facility with more than 2.5 million sq.ft. There, unplanned outages could have deadly consequences, so the hospital sought a way to ensure that its lights never went out.
Due to its location atop a mountain, the company did not have a lot of real estate in which to work. The solution involved mounting three 2500 kW PowerBlock systems in a stair-step configuration along the edge of a cliff.
“PowerSecure’s microgrid approach to hospital standby power generation enabled York Hospital to install 100% backup power,” said George Baker, director of engineering, WellSpan Health, “with N+2 redundancy and save over $2 million compared to bids we received on traditional standby power systems.” N+2 means that two backup systems are available to ensure additional resilience in the event of an emergency.”
The company monitors the assets 24/7 so that the system will respond immediately in the event of an outage. The system also provides energy cost savings through the local utility’s demand response program. Since this project was completed, PowerSecure has been tapped for other similar projects, including a new data center.