Tyler Stephens, left, an Itron program manager, speaks to a delegation from West Africa during a tour of an Itron facility. The delegation includes, from left, Abdoulaye Kane, director of distribution for SENELEC; Justin Konan, director of external relations for the Electrical Company of the Ivory Coast; and Oumar Diaw, director of market system operations for the West Africa Power Pool. Credit: United States Trade and Development Agency

A utility sector group toured microgrid facilities last week in Chicago and Champaign as part of a U.S. trade mission.

A delegation from West Africa crisscrossed Illinois last week to learn how microgrids can help integrate renewables and bolster electric reliability.

The utility sector officials toured microgrid facilities in Champaign and Chicago, met with executives of the state’s largest power utilities, and held talks with Illinois advanced grid technology companies.

The goal of the tour, organized by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, was to encourage smart grid investment and promote the export of U.S. technology, including tech being developed by companies like G&W Electric Company, which makes distribution switches and other electrical equipment, and Schneider Electric, an energy management company with advanced grid projects all over the Midwest — including at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Wisconsin.

The tour comes as the West Africa Power Pool, established in 2000 in an effort to form an integrated power market in the region, is pursuing aggressive goals to reduce emissions and onboard renewable generation while also trying to address the reality that some of its 15 country-members still struggle with energy access and have problems distributing power to remote places.  

We’re looking at introducing a huge percentage of renewables,” said Oluwafemi T. Fajemirokun, a Power Pool information technology specialist. “The microgrid concept that we have seen, which incorporates the wind, the solar and the gas — it’s a concept that we are looking at now.”

Microgrids, which are slowly beginning to take hold in the Midwest, have found traction in Illinois, a state that has invested billions in advanced electricity grid infrastructure.

The delegation toured a microgrid at Illinois Institute of Technology, which will be soon be clustered with another one being built by ComEd nearby. They also visited Ameren’s microgrid at its Technology Application Center, located near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ameren’s utility-scale microgrid is powered by wind turbines, a solar array, a 250-kilowatt battery and two 500-kilowatt natural gas generators. Recently, the microgrid successfully completed a 24-hour, 100-percent-renewable islanding test.

“As we introduce renewables on our networks, we need this type of technology to ensure that we’re able to use a power backup supply so that the renewables can be effectively used and dispatched on the network,” Fajemirokun said.

Related: How an Illinois utility used wind, solar and storage to power a microgrid for 24 hours

One of the Trade and Development Agency’s goals is to create smart grid jobs at home and abroad. “There are significant potential for renewables in these countries, but they face high challenges in their energy systems right now — high rates of outages and distribution losses,” said Clare Sierawski, an agency representative and the West Africa country manager of Power Africa, a U.S. initiative to encourage power access coordinated by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“There is potential to take advantage of some of the technology that have come out over the last decade in terms of grid efficiency technologies,” she said. “At the same time, work to overcome the challenges of increasing electrification and decreasing the losses by improving the efficiency of the grid.”

Beyond the West Africa Power Pool, representatives from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire — the Ivory Coast — and Ghana also toured Illinois along with regulators who are working with the Power Pool to set power standards.

“We learned about cutting-edge technology that’s been applied by ComEd and Ameren and utilities, and some solutions can be applicable in the Ivory Coast power system in order to improve technical and economic life for most of the people,” said Justin Konan, central director of external relations for CIE, the primary utility for the Ivory Coast.

Related: Microgrids slowly make inroads in Midwest, with Illinois taking the lead

CIE services about two million of the country’s 23 million people. The Ivory Coast’s land mass is similar in size to the state of New Mexico, and for remote areas, power is generated with diesel units and shipped over a small distribution grid. “But diesel is very costly, and we have to pay for fuel,” he said. “We are thinking about doing some hybrid solutions — a couple with diesel and solar, for example. We think that you can take the experience of microgrid here and develop these kinds of solutions.”

Konan is also interested in the ability to monitor the power grid remotely. CIE is deploying smart meters, and he discussed issues of cybersecurity and operability with representatives from Illinois’ utilities.

“We use pre-payment meters for the smart meters which is not common here in the U.S.,” he said. “We shared our experience about that with ComEd and Ameren. We see that as good solutions [to] improve cash revenue.”

Fajemirokun’s message for his U.S. counterparts? “I think it’s time that there’s a shipment of this technology to West Africa,” he said.

Microgrids explained

The market for microgrids is slowly but surely expanding in the Midwest, and the technology is generating a lot of buzz. But how exactly do microgrids work? 

YouTube video

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.