HOMER Energy CEO Dr. Peter Lilienthal discusses how to educate millions about microgrids.
The advent of electricity created disruptive change in the world. Now, the world of electric power is about to undergo a massively disruptive change itself. The rapidly declining cost of solar and batteries is ushering in a new era of clean, reliable, local electricity generation, and an end to the era of ever-bigger power plants and large transmission lines.
These changes are driven by a combination of environmental, social, and economic pressures, and are characterized by:
- A shift away from carbon-based (fossil) fuel generation to renewable generation, primarily sun, and wind;
- The ability to store electricity so that it is available when needed; and
- A move toward generation at or near the consumption point (distributed generation), instead of generation at large power plants, distributed through a large network of poles and wires.
This energy revolution has the ability to electrify the world and stabilize the grid, but it’s going to take help from millions to make it happen. Electricity has been the domain of experts, so engaging these millions is also going to require a revolution in education. We need millions of people to understand something about small-scale power systems. HOMER Energy wants to help make that education happen.
The power of distributed generation
One of the social drivers behind distributed generation is a need for electrification. Although widespread electrical grids have been in place for just over a century, there are still more than one billion people in the world who have no access to electricity. Even in many parts of the world where there is a grid, it is incapable of meeting basic needs and is frequently unavailable. In a world where many of us essentially have instantaneous communication with anyone, anywhere, it is time for the electric power industry to catch up with the communication industry. Many people are still literally in the dark, and it is becoming widely accepted that bringing electricity to those people will not be through poles and wires, but rather through distributed generation (see, for example, the recent New Yorker story, “The Race to Solar-Power Africa“).
But distributed generation, often in the form of mini-grids or microgrids, is not just picking up steam to serve the currently un- or under-electrified. Many recognize it as increasingly important in areas where there is a stable power grid in place. Distributed generation solves many problems associated with the grid — from a lack of security and stability to issues in emergencies to the problems with the variable nature of renewable resources. Microgrids and local generation can solve or greatly alleviate many of these problems (see “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future,” Gretchen Bakke, 2016, for an excellent synthesis).
A revolution with modest beginnings
I first created the HOMER software model in 1993, while I was at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). At that time, there was a research idea that small hybrid power systems might be used to support “energy access” (basic access to electricity) for unelectrified people. NREL needed a tool to understand what mix of resources and technologies those systems would use and what it would take to make them cost-effective. HOMER® was the outcome, built on specialized optimization software called GAMS (General Algebraic Modeling System), which required considerable training and an expensive license. In the late 90s, we ported HOMER from this specialized platform running on Unix workstations to be a downloadable Windows application, which opened up HOMER’s use to the world.
Although HOMER Pro has grown to be a valuable design tool, its original goal, and to this day its highest value, was to drive informed decision making, so that small, distributed power systems could be developed with confidence. At the time, I had no idea that it would grow to assist in the understanding of distributed generation for so many different applications. It’s now in use in companies large and small as well as thousands of universities.
Driving the energy revolution
The successful spread of any new technology, particularly a revolutionary technology, often requires that the “early adopters,” the first enthusiastic tinkerers and enthusiasts who recognize the value of the new technology, need to learn a lot in order to use it. They are willing to do this because their interest is high. Imagine the very first automobile owners. It was not a case of stepping in with the key in your pocket and pressing a button. There was much to understand, but as the technology spread, the industry found ways to make it more transparent and the knowledge of how they operate became part of the culture.
What most people know about electricity and its origin is pretty basic — it’s dangerous: don’t put metal objects into outlets, stay away from downed wires — and it gets “created” in large power plants and distributed through a network of poles and wires. The revolution required to electrify the world and stabilize the grid through distributed generation will take more than technology and political will — it will take millions of people who understand how these new systems work.
HOMER QuickStart: a tool to educate millions about microgrids
HOMER Energy wants to help spread this understanding, through a new software tool – HOMER QuickStart. Located at the website quickstart.homerenergy.com, it runs as a service through a web browser and is designed to quickly and efficiently help a user understand what their power system options might be. HOMER QuickStart is an experiment for us. The goal for QuickStart is a tool that millions can use. It’s not meant to spit out an engineering-ready design (we don’t think models should ever do that), but rather to aid in understanding.
So, in this spirit, if you are interested in helping drive the energy revolution, please go to quickstart.homerenergy.com and take it for a spin. You will be asked to create a user profile, but there is no cost for the beta software. Then, help us teach one million people by sharing this post, either via email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or whatever mechanism you use to reach out. Together, we can change the world.
Look for Peter’s monthly blog posts on Microgrid News & Insight.