This month, microgrid control technology took center stage at the MIT Clean Energy Prize with Helia Technologies winning the $100,000 grand prize.

Their winning technology – the “Heila IQ” distributed controller – is a universal control hub designed to monitor and control microgrid systems. The key in this technology lies in its software, which was developed by the Helia team to translate the different languages used in a microgrid systems into a single platform. By using this software, the hub can sense changes in the microgrid system across all connected components and help the system to react to shifts. In turn, according to MIT, the technology can make microgrid systems more efficient and easier to operate.

Microgrids are groups of energy sources (e.g. solar PV, wind turbines, or diesel generators) and loads that normally operate as a part of the larger electricity grid, but maintain the ability to sever this connection to effectively become an energy island. This ability to isolate themselves is potentially useful in the case of emergencies and unexpected problems in the larger system.

Today’s microgrids are found in a wide variety of sizes. For example, the Santa Rita jail in California spans across 113-acres and houses up to ~4,000 inmates. It is also a modern microgrid, with onsite solar PV, wind, fuel cells, and batteries capable of supplying the jail's energy needs.

On a larger scale, Denmark’s Bornholm Island and its ~28,000 energy customers can now operate as a true energy island thanks to their own microgrid. This island was one of the field test sites for the “More Microgrids Project” sponsored by the European Commission, and has been used to study the impact of incorporating high levels of renewables. On the supply side, the Bornholm island system includes local wind turbines and 4 combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plants.

Map of Denmark with Bornholm Island in red by Rotsee (Wikipedia – CC 3.0)

Of course, the smooth operation of the local microgrid is key consideration and getting each component to work together can be a challenge to their expanded development. According to Helia team member John Donnal, “A big problem we’ve seen in microgrids is, when you buy [the components], you can’t get them to work together…Now you, as a customer, can go out and find the best industry player to get the [microgrid] equipment, and you get Heila to get them to all talk to each other. And when you can make microgrids that easy, you can then integrate renewables at a much higher rate.”

The Helia team consists of MIT alumni and current students. Last weekend, they took first place at the 9th annual MIT Clean Energy Prize, beating out five other finalists.