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Microgrids Will Disrupt the Energy Industry of the Near Future

Megan Nichols's picture
Freelance Technical Writer Self-Employed

Megan Ray Nichols is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to breaking down current complex scientific discussions into the vernacular. She loves writing about the latest...

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  • Apr 13, 2018

There is no longer any room for doubt — our climate is changing and it’s largely our fault. Thankfully, the sciences have done what they do best and provided us with several short- and long-term measures to help us stop and eventually reverse the trend of ever-higher average temperatures across the globe.

The microgrid is almost certainly one of the most exciting and revolutionary examples of climate-fortifying technology. It could, if we get serious about it, help us meet the two-degree temperature rise benchmark scientists recommend for staving off planetary-scale disaster. These are the stakes.

What Are Microgrids and Why Have They Become Necessary?

Industrial technologists and climate scientists have found a consensus on one of the first steps required to prevent catastrophic changes across our planet brought on by our overreliance on fossil fuels — hook everything up to the electric grid.

Does it sound deceptively simple? It’s nearly as straightforward as it sounds. Consider the energy needs of the average family home. It already requires electricity to power the refrigerator, the lights and many other appliances. It might have a natural gas hookup for a fireplace insert or a propane tank outside for the range. That’s a lot of redundancy and a lot of waste.

Technologies that rely on combustion, including our vehicles and those big, ungainly heating oil tanks in our basements, are wasteful and dirty up the atmosphere. So, we have to shift toward hooking up everything that requires energy to function to the electric grid.

Of course, that’s where things get complicated. Enter the microgrid.

Along with this newfound dependence upon a larger, more interconnected electrical grid comes a host of other requirements, not the least of which are:

  • A greener electric grid powered by renewable energy
  • A more stable electric grid that delivers uniform supply even during peak demand
  • An electric grid hardened against predictable and unforeseen natural disasters, such as hurricanes.

Hurricane Maria is known to have caused the most widespread electrical blackout in this history of the United States. So we know it’s not enough that our electrical grid becomes more sustainable — it must also become more resilient and more predictable when it comes to output.

The microgrid provides an elegant solution to this host of interconnected problems and challenges. Simply put, a microgrid is any assembly of power sources — be they solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, etc. — that is governed by some central control mechanism. A microgrid is a standalone power grid, and much smaller in scale than what we picture today when we think of the phrase “power grid” or “the grid.” A microgrid could be a handful of buildings — this is sometimes called a “nanogrid” — or a small community.

The most recent counts place the number of microgrids in the U.S. at somewhere around 1,900, but researchers and industry voices expect this number to rise sharply in the coming years. According to Microgrid knowledge, Brooklyn has already become home to a microgrid. So has Puerto Rico, where this technology has been instrumental in rebuilding infrastructure in the wake of recent natural disasters.

Some of the advantages brought to the green energy-climate change “table” are obvious, but others might take some explaining. Both kinds are equally exciting.

Power for (All of the) People

One of the first and most obvious potential applications of the microgrid is to bring reliable power to rural and under-served areas. It is difficult and incredibly expensive to expand current centralized power grids to — for example — brand-new housing developments and remote farming or industrial facilities. Microgrids can be scaled and expanded extremely rapidly and allow these small communities to effectively stand on their own, energy-wise.

In applications where such a community would remain in physical contact with a centralized power grid, microgrids also deliver the potential to, with the “press” of a figurative “button,” isolate and “island” themselves from the larger grid to provide backup power to the local populace even if the larger region struggles with outages. This delivers the resilience we spoke of earlier, in the form of smaller, effectively “modular” power grids that can respond more appropriately during intense storms, for example, than a single grid ever could.

To recap, a microgrid is a way to harness a series of clean energy sources together to serve a single building, a collection of homes, a community or even a whole county, with reliable, clean and either grid-connected or grid-isolated power. The practical applications are enormous — but so are the humanitarian ones.

The Democratization of Electricity

It would be a missed opportunity to close without speaking about the democratizing effect this type of technology can have on developing communities and countries. The United Nations has thoroughly documented the benefits microgrids have already delivered in India, Malaysia, Haiti and elsewhere.

Although the places might vary, our world has already seen the potential influence of the microgrid. This is truly a democratizing technology, and one which might deliver all the peoples of the world from several forms of unnecessary want. The social sciences and humanitarian organizations tend to agree that “human development” rather than, say, military intervention, is the cure for many types of “radicalization” and global strife.

Our existing technologies are equal parts wasteful and harmful. Moreover, they are not prepared for the challenge of bringing power to a world that’s globalizing faster and becoming more socially dependent upon one another than most of us can believe. This development is an extremely promising look at what’s to come as the world looks for the technological tools to serve the common good by solving common problems.

Photo Credit: Jacob Norlund via Flickr

Daniel Duggan's picture
Daniel Duggan on Apr 13, 2018

Hi Megan,
an interesting article, a few questions, can you please provide verifiable data supporting your assertions that:

1. micro grids dependent consumers receive a more dependable electricity supply than those supplied from a conventional state or national grid. [assume both are properly maintained]

2. micro grids provide superior stability (control of voltage, frequency and RoCoF) .

3. a micro grid provides lower cost electricity to consumers in urban areas where a traditional grid connection is available.

4. micro grids are inherently more capable of efficiently absorbing intermittent renewable electricity than a large area grid

As micro grids are increasingly discussed and promoted I am really looking forward to your responses.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on Apr 13, 2018

Maybe she didn’t explain what a microgrid was well enough. You typically have battery storage with a microgrid. More reliable means you have basically a UPS system which is -closer- to the consumer. Batteries are superior for frequency regulation then load following. They cost less because they can significantly reduce monthly and yearly peak transmission costs.

Even with all that going for it, I think the largest market for microgrids is still places where no existing electrical infrastructure exists.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Apr 13, 2018

The microgrid is almost certainly one of the most exciting and revolutionary examples of climate-fortifying technology.

That type of hype really offends me. Aside from having no basis in fact, it contributes to a complaisance about climate change and masks the true scope of what will be required to do anything about it.

There’s no magic in microgrids. It’s not some innovative new technology. It’s just a particular way of connecting electrical service that allows for the possibility of local supply, potentially independent of the main grid. Microgrids are quite common. Every commercial or industrial facility that a backup generator to supply power when the grid goes down is a microgrid. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the local supply is a diesel powered backup generator. There’s nothing climate-saving about that.

Increasingly of late, the local supply will be a combination of solar panels and batteries. It’s the cooption of the term “microgrid” by renewable energy advocates to mean that particular form of microgrid that gives the term a green cachet. But that form isn’t generally practical unless it’s backed by a larger grid connection and can use that connection as an unlimited “virtual battery”. Real battery storage is still much too expensive in terms of the energy capacity required to support simple overnight power consumption. Much less the capacity to support 24-hour energy consumption over days or weeks of cloudy weather.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Apr 13, 2018

Microgrids have been around ever since we started generating electricity. The first grids were all microgrids sizewise.

There is no new magical technology here. In remote locations and in areas where grid is undependable, microgrid has always been the solution. Both microgrids and grids are made of the same components.

What the article above does not mention is cost. I do not believe building powerplants and power lines on a small scale to be more economical than building them on a large scale. If the economies were such, we wouldn’t have large grids at all.

Therefore, I have profound doubts about this disruption. Traditional grids can be almost carbon free, just look at France and Scandinavia.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 14, 2018

Sorry Megan, but you’re way off base on microgrids.

We started with those 100 years ago, and found that due to economies of scale, and reserve-sharing, it is _always_ better to combine adjacent microgrids into larger grids, discarding the expensive feature which allow local autonomy and islanding; at least until the cost of transmission becomes significant, which is distances of many dozens of miles for large loads (many hundreds of yards for single homes). Of course for loads that need higher reliability (hospitals, data centers, etc), islanding can be done on a per-building or per-computer basis.

Want to switch to clean and sustainable energy? Adding it to the big grid is still the best solution. With wind power, the benefits of a large grid are super important, since the power output of a collection of wind farms varies a lot more smoothly than that of a single wind turbine. But for every technology, big grids are advantageous.

So basically, microgrids are nothing more than snake oil, with much more hype than substance.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 14, 2018

Roger, I’ll take offense at everything about this article you do, and then some.

#1 on my list is the supposed “democratization” of energy, accompanied by a democratization of responsibility for emissions. If Megan were to actually visit a microgrid-served community in a developing country, she would quickly discover not “greener electric grid(s) powered by renewable energy,” but dirtier micro-grids (in sum) powered by diesel generators.

In any community for which a microgrid could

deliver the potential to, with the “press” of a figurative “button,’” isolate and “island” themselves from the larger grid to provide backup power to the local populace even if the larger region struggles with outages. This delivers the resilience we spoke of earlier, in the form of smaller, effectively “modular” power grids that can respond more appropriately during intense storms, for example, than a single grid ever could.

she would discover the figurative “button” connected to a literal “starter” on a “diesel generator,” and that no solar arrays exist which are capable of generating electricity “during intense storms.”

And if she had actually read Chapter 1 of the United Nations report to which she links:

Diesel-based microgrids are by far the most common throughout the world, given the relatively low upfront capital cost of the generator and its widespread availability.

she would realize “the advantages brought to the green energy-climate change ‘table’,” are nothing more than cult-inspired hooey.

Dividing the problem of carbon emissions into many pieces would only make its solution exponentially more difficult. Thus, the real problem is not climate change as much as the chronic ignorance driving most proposed solutions to it.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 15, 2018

And the microgrids can rely on that larger grid connection, if that larger grid has a sufficient percent of flexible electricity on the grid at all times.

That means microgrids will be small actors in the overall picture.

If the larger grid also has a lot of wind and solar, it would need many thousands of 100MW/129MWh battery systems*, at about $50 million each, to cover seasonal conditions.

A Tesla Powerpack battery system, the largest in the world.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 15, 2018

France, 80% nuclear, grid 10 times less CO2/kWh than Germany
Norway 98% hydro
Sweden about 80% hydro plus nuclear
Quebec 98% hydro.

Megan Nichols's picture
Thank Megan for the Post!
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