People and Places Making Microgrids Work

This is the second part of my three-part series on microgrids. Part one offers an overview of the state of microgrids, and part three looks at the future of microgrids.

“Microgrids can be any size, extremely small or relatively large,” Peter Asmus of research firm Navigant told me. “University of California San Diego’s campus microgrid is 42 megawatts, but Anbaric Holding’s Niobrara Data Center Energy Park proposal in Colorado is as large as 200 megawatts.”

“The main thing that makes something a microgrid is its ability to island,” he added. “When storms hit the East, the grid goes down, and 95 percent of solar goes down with it. If you want any renewables to keep operating when the grid goes down, you need a microgrid. An island of power.”

Pareto Energy’s approach to microgrids is to decouple local power sources, energy consumers and the macrogrid, resulting in what CTO Shalom Flank called a “nonsynchronous microgrid” that still cannot rely wholly on photovoltaics.

That said, Flank says “the future power grid will look more like the internet. A lot of loosely-coupled local nodes, or microgrids, that are largely self-sufficient, while remaining connected to many other nodes and some larger trunk lines, or the transmission system. Whether climate chaos is serving up a super-storm, a derecho, a heat wave, or anything else, we won’t see massive regional black-outs, but just local disruptions that still preserve the basic fabric of normal life.”

It may not make traditional sense to some to build microgrids as large as UCSD and Niobrara, but aggregating both demand and service into smaller, quicker islands of power that can be energized up as needed is a must to withstand the unpredictable storms and surges of global warming.

In the turbulent future, utilities “will be “the infrastructure providers on which microgrids are enabled…the framework for innovation,” Anbaric Holding founder Ed Krapels explained recently at a sustainable energy conference in Boston. “Some distribution companies are fantastic and will be immune to the competition that folks like us bring. But others will not be.”

“This is a big country, he added. “We are going to have lots of different efforts here. Some of them will actually fracture the distribution companies into smaller pieces.”

Current efforts by utilities to stifle cleantech takeovers of the macrogrid, from solar taxes to worse, are being successfully fought off, as global warming throws ever more challenges in the way. In fact, the microgrid revolution grew directly out of recent superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, San Diego’s 2007 wildfires and many more.

It’s not like they’re going anywhere, making it just a matter of time before microgrids are mainstreamed as state-of-emergency lifesavers.

“Microgrids weren’t originally thought of as a resiliency resource,” Asmus explained. “In fact, incentives disallowed you from putting a battery in. But now things are changing; states like Connecticut, New Jersey and New York are promoting the idea of using interstate dollars to study or master plan microgrids because of extreme storms.”

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New York committed $40 million to kickstart microgrid competition to quickly develop a resilient system that could power the state when the Atlantic’s rougher, tougher storms and surges force it to unplug from the macrogrid. Konterra, a planned 2,000-acre, mixed-use community in Maryland, is empowered by a 402-megawatt microgrid. Meanwhile, Connecticut is creating America’s first state-wide microgrid while New Jersey, still reeling from superstorm Sandy, is creating America’s first microgrid for a transit system.

It is no accident that Jersey’s transit system is a major escape route out of a Manhattan catastrophe.

Those relaxing states and more are joined by the U.S. Department of Energy, which committed $7 million to explore microgrid design. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s High Energy Cost Grant Program also kicked down $3 million to Veriown Energy to fund a solar microgrid for the University of Virgin Islands to help it become energy independent.

Houses created for Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon by the Missouri University of Science and Technology have been collected into what the school claims is America’s first solar village to test microgrid technology. In turn, these public institutions are joined by corporate players like Canadian Solar, which recently announced a Microgrid Testing Centre, and SunPower, last seen seeking microgrid solutions in searing Australia.

But the private sector and public properties converge as well: U.C.SD’s “Motel 6 of Microgrids” features PV from Soitec, an EV charger from NRG and more funded by vendors looking to better capitalize on the campus’ innovation elevator. NRG, Princeton University and others also recently formed the Microgrid Resources Coalition in D.C., a consortium of microgrid “owners, operators, developers, suppliers and investors” coming together to stake out territory and influence.

“Innovations in core microgrid technologies like solar, cogeneration, and control systems are happening so fast that microgrids are outpacing existing regulatory frameworks and business models,” NRG vice-president for sustainability, policy and strategy said in a press release.

All of which, of course, is the beauty of microgrids, and therefore decentralized energy. Accessibility and adaptability, especially compared to their more monolithic macrogrid predecessors. Both are resource interoperative and empowered — at least for now.

“Some microgrids use fossil fuels, some use renewables,” Asmus told SolarEnergy. “But usually they are going to be cleaner and more efficient compared to diesel, power plants and long-distance transmission.”

“The challenge,” he added, “is getting them to all work together for the larger system, so utilities don’t have to worry. But if we’re really going to move to a distributed energy future, then we’re going to need microgrids. They’re the bridge.”

Next: Microgrids as a bridge to somewhere better

This article appeared at Solar Energy

Microgrids 101, In Three Parts

How Microgrids Offer a Cleaner, More Resilient Electrical Grid

The People and Places Making Microgrids Work Today

A Bridge to Somewhere? The Future of Microgrids