Microgrids are a much smaller version of an energy utility’s megagrid: a network that connects a few buildings, a campus or a neighborhood. They comprise distributed energy resources, energy storage systems and loads under one control system.

Microgrids connect to the main grid at a point of “common coupling,” which maintains voltage at the same level. A switch can automatically or manually separate the microgrid from the main grid, and it then functions as an island. By controlling distributed energy resources as a single entity, they can also act as a bidirectional energy network supplying power to the megagrid if necessary.

With the power of microgrids, it’s no wonder they’ve become a growing trend in the industry. This what energy utilities need to know as they advise customers about the pros and cons of microgrid technology.

Distributed energy resources spur microgrid growth

A record number of microgrids (546) were installed in the United States in 2019, although annual capacity was down 7% from 2018, according to Wood McKenzie. This is in line with a trend toward smaller (below 5 MW) replicable modular systems that started in 2017.

The pandemic has slowed growth so far in 2020. However, FERC Order 2222 will be a major post-pandemic accelerant for microgrids, paving the way for aggregated distributed energy resources (DER) to compete with traditional power plants in wholesale markets. Also, a trend toward third-party ownership of microgrids is driving the development of microgrids. The federal government has also shifted its focus from energy efficiency to resiliency through microgrids over the last few years.

Powering microgrids with renewable energy sources

Microgrids can be powered by distributed generators, batteries or renewable sources, such as solar energy. It’s not uncommon to have a mix of different power sources. Renewable energy sources in microgrids are also enabling beneficial electrification and decarbonization.

Microgrids are still primarily fossil fuel-driven, though, with 86% of new microgrid new capacity in 2019 powered by diesel fuel and natural gas. However, forecasters expect renewable power sources (solar, wind and hydropower) to drive 35% of new microgrid capacity by 2025.

Cutting costs and reducing emissions

Microgrids offer many benefits, including providing resilience in extreme weather conditions. Wildfires, hurricanes and floods often threaten the grid. Apart from emergencies, microgrids can be used for energy independence or sustainability, such as distributing solar power within a neighborhood. They can relieve pressure on the main grid during peak demand.

Microgrids benefit utility customers by providing a more reliable power supply, reducing emissions, cutting costs and connecting to local resources too small for the traditional grid.

Microgrid case studies: Resiliency at work

Microgrids are everywhere and there are a variety of sizes for any number of situations. Take, for instance, New York University’s island microgrid, which was put to the test during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This microgrid continued to provide power to much of the NYU campus, supplying electricity to 22 buildings and heat to 37 others.

The Fort Collins, Colorado, microgrid is part of a larger project known as the Fort Collins Zero Energy District. The district includes New Belgium Brewery, Colorado State University’s main campus, and other facilities. The goal of the microgrid is to produce as much energy as it consumes. The district’s distributed generation and load-shedding capabilities total 5 megawatts, or enough electricity to power about 3,750 homes.

Arizona Public Service (APS) built, owns, operates and maintains a 25 MW microgrid at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma. This installation makes MCAS Yuma 100% resilient to external grid failures and offers APS civilian customers peaking capacity and frequency response reserves.

Several manufacturers of gas-fueled engines, including Siemens, are launching microgrid systems. Using Siemens microgrid management software, one project is testing the concept of microgrid clusters. The Bronzeville Community Microgrid in Illinois is designed to serve 10 critical facilities and over 1,000 customers, including the Chicago Police Department. It will also connect to a nearby microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Microgrids offer major benefits to utilities

As these examples demonstrate, there are a variety of ways that microgrids can help communities by distributing renewable energy and backing up the main power grid during natural disasters or outages.

The benefits to utilities are anything but micro. Microgrids can improve the operation and stability of the regional electric grid and provide increased resiliency to critical operations customers like hospitals. Plus, they can shore up aging utility infrastructure and decrease peak demand. For energy utilities, thinking small has its advantages.

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As we prepare for the big man in red to make his yearly appearance, his normal entryway for businesses is getting an upgrade. Solar chimneys are becoming a more common building design element to create comfortable environments inside.

What are solar chimneys?

Solar chimneys, also known as a thermosiphon or thermal chimneys, are “passive” conduits that harness environmental conditions to generate cool air within buildings and expel hot air, or vice versa. Comparably, many buildings use “active” energy consuming measures, which use complex building systems to create comfortable indoor conditions, such as boilers and chillers. 

Solar chimneys are tall structures designed to face the sun with a dark, matte surface to absorb solar radiation. They use the same principle as a fireplace, where the heat naturally rises to the top of the chimney and cool air enters the bottom. In the case of solar chimneys, the sun is what causes the air to heat up and rise. This allows cooler air from below to be pulled into the chimney, warmed and vented. The process of rising hot air and entering cool air provides ventilation in the chimney and helps cool the building below.

However, solar chimneys can also be used to heat buildings when the weather turns cool. For this, the ventilation outlet at the top of the chimney, where the hot air normally exhausts, is closed and interior vents are opened, allowing the hot air back into the building.

The keys to solar chimney design

Solar chimneys are particularly effective when they are placed in an area where they can be directly hit by sunlight. Size matters too — they need to be tall and wide, but not too deep so that the surface areas that both absorb the sun and come in contact with the air inside the chimney is maximized. Solar chimneys can vary in design for maximum efficiency, including adding multiple chambers to increase the surface area or using materials that absorb the most heat, such as a black frame, tinted glass and insulated glazing.

Another important aspect of the design is how cool air gets funneled into the solar chimney. Two methods are typically used for this ventilation process. One option is to open windows on the lowest level of the building to capture cool air flowing through the building and send it the base of the chimney. Another option is to bury a pipe underground; the air in the pipe cools and eventually makes its way to the base of the chimney where it can be heated and released. The design one chooses is up to the capabilities of the building and cost.

The benefits of solar chimneys

There are numerous advantages to using a solar chimney to regulate the air inside buildings.

  • Solar chimneys have a smaller impact on the environment compared to traditional chimneys that emit smoke. Solar chimneys simply emit air, thus no pollution and no carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Solar chimneys are a cost-effective choice for a cooling and heating system compared to air conditioning or heating units. Plus, no electricity or gas is needed to power the chimney.
  • They are more reliable and easier to maintain than conventional units since they don’t require any actual mechanics. No power outages or breakdowns affect them — only sunlight. Since they don’t require fuels to operate, they also are easier to keep clean.

As business customers consider more cost-effective and eco-friendly options to heat and cool their buildings, solar chimneys are becoming a viable choice. As their energy utility, it’s important to be aware of this trending technology to assist your customers in their decision-making. Plus, with the holidays around the corner, Santa will certainly appreciate the latest innovation in chimney technology.

Educate your utility’s business customers about the latest energy trends and technologies with an eNewsletter from Questline Digital.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about climate change, and many state regulators have set ambitious renewable energy goals for utilities. The planet’s temperature has been rising for decades, and even the Paris Climate Agreement targets a maximum 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise in this century. However, some believe that cutting planet-warming emissions is not enough to stave off disaster. Thus, enters geoengineering.

Geoengineering is “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change,” according to the University of Oxford. This is generally accomplished one of two ways:

  1. Sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky, aka “carbon removal” or “direct air capture,” so the atmosphere will trap less heat.
  2. Reflecting more sunlight away from the planet so less heat is absorbed in the first place.

The question remains: Do we utilize geoengineering to offset the negative effects of climate change? Read on to learn more about the different categories of geoengineering, as well as the implications of these environmental interventions.

Direct Air Capture

The oceans absorb a lot of CO2. David Keith, a Harvard University physicist, has developed a patented “negative emissions technology” using chemistry to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. In 1995, British researchers suggested fertilizing the oceans with iron to stimulate the growth of CO2-absorbing algae. Phytoplankton algae would soak up CO2 from the water and cause more to be absorbed from the atmosphere. There have been over a dozen major iron-fertilization experiments in the open ocean since 1990.

Reflecting Sunlight

Volcano eruptions have cooled the earth slightly in the past. Concern over “nuclear winter” had scientists studying solar geoengineering back in the 1940s and 1950s. More modern ideas include setting up sun shields in space and floating billions of white objects on the oceans to reflect sunlight.

Dispersing microscopic particles (typically sulphates) into the stratosphere by airplanes to scatter sunlight (4,000 to 10,000 flights a year) was an idea first proposed in 1965. To protect the arctic ice cap, scientists have conceived the idea of deploying tall ships to pump salt particles from the ocean into polar clouds.

Recent attempts at geoengineering

Russian scientists conducted a “stratospheric injection” experiment in 2009 and Harvard University and University of Washington scientists are separately planning their own similar experiments soon. There is a direct air capture (DAC) facility in Zurich, developed by the Swiss company Climeworks, that removes CO2 from the atmosphere using a sorbent filter. Waste heat from a local waste incineration plant drives the process.

Carbon Engineering, a Bill Gates-backed company, has been testing a liquid potassium carbonate sorbent DAC technology since 2015. Coca-Cola aims to use Global Thermostat’s DAC to source CO2 for its carbonated beverages.

A Center for Negative Carbon Emissions was founded in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University in 2014. Many utilities see Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) as an opportunity to significantly lower emissions from carbon intensive generation assets. CSS is a proven technology, though not yet adopted at scale.

Issues and concerns with geoengineering

Possible downsides of geoengineering include damaging the protective ozone layer, altering global rainfall patterns, reducing crop growth and acidifying the oceans. The effects that algae blooms could have on the marine food web is unknown.

Other implementation issues to consider include:

  • Global (planet-scale) or local (ice sheets) operations?
  • Who would be in charge of such planetary endeavors?
  • How do you settle on a single global average temperature?
  • Is geoengineering playing “God”?
  • Scaling up experiments is risky. Can we go back if results are unacceptable?
  • Is the geoengineering risk greater than negative climate change effects?
  • Could a focus on geoengineering delay direct greenhouse gas emissions reductions?

Some say that we have been unintentionally geoengineering our climate for more than a century, so why not intentionally geoengineer it now? Others argue that blithely dumping another 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year is akin to government deficit spending. The attitude is, “Let future generations deal with it.”

Solar geoengineering is attractive because it is relatively inexpensive, works immediately and doesn’t require global cooperation for local projects. Alternatively, restoring forests, an effective “natural” climate solution, may be the path to follow. The World Resources Institute estimates that a degraded forest area twice the size of Canada is available for reforestation globally.

With the numerous options available today, it is apparent that more research needs to be done to determine if geoengineering is the right solution to combat climate change.

Many energy utilities turn to an eco-friendly or green marketing message when promoting paperless billing, electric vehicle rebates, electrification, energy efficiency and other programs. But how effective is a green message when it comes to customer engagement and conversions? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of green messaging to find out if this approach is right for your utility’s marketing strategy.

Buzzword or brand builder?

Research by digital agency Specific Media finds that some consumers are apprehensive and even skeptical about green messaging. Over the past five years, sustainability has become a marketing buzzword, inundating advertising and marketing campaigns, from car manufacturers to beauty companies. Consumers are continuously bombarded by green messages, which undermines the effectiveness and authenticity of that marketing.

Many marketers are now hesitant to make sustainability a focus, worried about misleading consumers or causing a social media backlash for overstating a product’s sustainability. A green message can be successful at building a brand and showcasing your utility’s community initiatives, but it is less effective as the primary message in a marketing campaign. For example, when promoting an electric vehicle rebate program, the focus should be on the cost savings, with a secondary message about the environmental impact.

Keep in mind, many customers are not motivated to take action by a green message, even if they want to positively impact the environment. According to Harvard Business Review, one survey found that 65% of consumers had a desire to purchase sustainable products and services, but only 26% actually followed through with it.

What does this mean for energy utilities? An environmental message has the power to emotionally connect with customers, but it is not always successful at driving conversions or achieving program goals.

Enhance your energy utility’s green message

In a Journal of Environmental Psychology study, social influence has been shown to encourage customers to take action with ecofriendly messages, even when “the current norms for purchasing green products are low.” In other words, customers are often motivated by what their peers are doing.

For example, instead of promoting the green benefit of reduced paper consumption in a paperless billing campaign, highlight how other customers are making the switch and how going paperless is becoming common in today’s society. When promoting LED lighting for residential customers, consider this message: “Your neighbors are saving energy with LED lights — are you?”

For green messaging to be successful, customer education is key. Many customers simply aren’t aware of the environmental benefits of a particular program. For example, if your energy utility is creating a campaign to promote a community solar program, provide customers with information about the energy-saving benefits and the impact on their energy bill. Instead of simply describing community solar as green, “walk the walk” by combining education with marketing.

Connect with purpose-driven customers

Demographics are changing, and energy utilities are increasingly marketing to younger generations. Both millennials and Gen Z are passionate about advocating for sustainability and climate change, especially on social media. In fact, 75% of millennials will pay extra for sustainable products.

These purpose-driven customers are passionate about the environmental impact of the products and services they use. According to a Gallup poll, millennials and Gen Z are “highly worried about global warming, think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetime and think news reports about it are accurate or underestimate the problem.” Another recent study finds that 87% of millennials believe companies should be addressing environmental issues.

To reach these customers, sustainability messaging makes sense on your social media platforms as a way to encourage conversations and sharing. For example, highlight your energy utility’s midcentury carbon emission reduction goals and showcase local partnerships that make a difference for the environment. Also, try segmenting your customers to include more green messaging with younger audiences.

Keep in mind, millennials and Gen Z aren’t the only generations to care about the environment. Although younger generations love to express their passion for sustainability on social media, Gen X and baby boomers have greater purchasing power to seek out ecofriendly products and services. Customer insights data by Forrester Analytics finds that baby boomers are the generation that feels most empowered to reduce their environmental impact.

With climate change a hot-button topic, messages about the environment certainly resonate with today’s energy utility customers. However, a green message may not be enough to drive customer conversions. With the right research and marketing strategy, your energy utility can decide if a green message is the right direction to enhance your program promotions and build your brand.

Is your program messaging connecting with the right customers? Learn more about a targeted marketing strategy for your energy utility.

Technology seems to advance at the speed of light these days. Yet few things are changing as fast as home energy use. From smart devices to electric vehicles to solar and other renewables, consumers have more control over their energy use than ever before.

The nonprofit Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC), which works to educate the public about the benefits of smart energy and energy technology, enlisted Questline Digital’s help to create fun, engaging resources that would bring these issues to life. This partnership fueled one of our most creative projects to date: “The Evolving World of Energy” video and content series.

Industry collaboration

SECC asked Questline Digital to develop a toolkit of resources to engage residential consumers on specific energy topics through a variety of mediums. The first initiative was an educational video series focused on the ever-changing developments in energy, including electric vehicles and clean energy sources like solar and wind power. Since SECC’s members are made up of energy utilities and other industry partners, the video series needed to be easily sharable on their digital channels, including websites, social media and eNewsletters.

“We started with Questline Digital after creating three ‘The Evolving World of Energy’ fact sheets and decided a compelling character could brand the videos and mediums together,” says Greg Schwartz, SECC’s Director of Operations. “Visuals like infographics, videos and even social media images to accompany the text-based mediums would help to capture consumers’ attention and be better for sharing.” 

“The Evolving World of Energy” video series     

The three video topics included: emerging energy technology, electric vehicles and renewable energy. Before starting production of the first video, Questline Digital’s Creative & Content team brainstormed and presented ideas for three different concepts. SECC ultimately chose Professor Energy, a fun and energetic character to serve as the guide and voiceover throughout the video series. Professor Energy was inspired by “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” the Emmy Award-winning science program known for being quirky yet educational. This video series concept is a nostalgic nod to classic science education programs.

“Professor Energy was created with the mindset of breaking barriers in the male-dominated energy industry,” says Joe Pifher, Questline Digital’s Creative Director. “Her character has a ton of personality, helping to take dry subject matter and turn it into something engaging.”

“Questline Digital’s expertise has proven invaluable to SECC as we’ve sought to fulfill our mission of helping consumers in North America understand the benefits of smart energy. Through videos, infographics, fact sheets and other resources, Questline Digital has helped us provide factual information and practical tips to consumers around renewable energy, electric vehicles, smart home technology and energy efficiency.” —Greg Schwartz, SECC Director of Operations

For the scriptwriting process, the goal was to incorporate the most important information from SECC’s in-depth fact sheets (six to eight pages long) into a three-minute video. In addition to providing educational insights and the latest statistics, the videos needed to engage and entertain viewers.

Each video in the “Evolving World of Energy” series starts and ends with black-and-white footage reminiscent of an old-fashioned educational film, which serves as a dramatic contrast to the colorful contemporary animation that follows. This visual look also illustrates energy’s dramatic transformation from the past into the future. Each video featured real-world examples and provided Professor Energy with plenty of adventures as she navigated different scenes.

For example, in the “Evolving World of Energy” video, Professor Energy demonstrates the convenience of smart home technology by adjusting her home’s AC from her smartphone while relaxing on the beach. In the video “Renewable Energy 101″ she appears in a solar farm, as photovoltaics pop up in the scene all around her, showcasing this fast-growing renewable resource.

The video “Electric Vehicles: How Much Do You Know?” was the most comprehensive of the series, both in animation and scriptwriting. This video needed to dispel common misconceptions around electric vehicles while showcasing new opportunities and efficiencies. This video featured additional characters, including a talking electric vehicle named Eve. In this video, Professor Energy and Eve drive around town, highlighting the benefits of EVs versus gasoline-powered vehicles. Questline Digital also created the “Electric Vehicles: The Ride of the Future” infographic with key trends and statistics from the video. 

SECC shared these resources through a variety of channels:

  • Industry and consumer websites: Resources were available to view or download by members and non-members.
  • In-person conferences: Videos were showcased at several member meetings and a consumer symposium comprised of SECC members and non-member attendees.
  • Webinars: The Electric Vehicles video and infographic were prominently featured in an EV webinar that had 100 attendees.  
  • Social media: Shared on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest (including paid media) 
  • Email marketing: Resources were included in announcement emails and educational recap emails. They were sent to SECC’s consumer email list (4,996 subscribers), member email list (1,603 subscribers) and industry non-member email list (1,820 subscribers).
  • SECC Members: Resources were shared on member social media channels and included in eNewsletters, as well as utilized for internal education.
  • Google Adwords: EV content was used in Google Ads, generating a high number of clicks and impressions.

Results and metrics  

“The Evolving World of Energy” video series proved to be a success, helping to increase consumer understanding of renewable energy and smart technology. Combined, “The Evolving World of Energy” video series garnered more than 5,400 views on YouTube.

The video “Electric Vehicles: How Much Do You Know?” is the most popular to date, reflecting growing consumer interest in EVs. The video and accompanying infographic were added to the main navigation element on SECC’s consumer website. They also serve as key decision-making resources for companies and organizations to join SECC.

“Electric Vehicles: How Much Do You Know?” video

  • 4,422 views on YouTube
  • Nearly 16,000 views on Facebook
  • 41,951 pageviews on consumer website

“Electric Vehicles: The Ride of the Future” infographic

  • 284 industry downloads
  • 894 pageviews on SECC’s consumer website

Learn how Questline Digital’s Electric Vehicles Content can drive your EV marketing strategy to the finish line.