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How microgrids will shape the future of infrastructure resiliency

How microgrids will shape the future of infrastructure resiliency

10 days ago by Courtney Milot
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  •  A microgrid is a group of distributed energy resources and interconnected loads that act as a self-sufficient energy system.

  • Microgrids operate autonomously and can connect and disconnect from the main grid; they provide resilience to grid disturbances and promote energy efficiency.

  • Microgrids have been proven to promote infrastructure reliably in real-world situations.

What is a microgrid?

A microgrid is a group of interconnected loads and DERs (distributed energy resources) that behaves as an autonomous system. Individually, microgrids can power houses, hospitals, facilities, universities, etc. However, individual microgrids can be linked together to power larger regions. (1)

The U.S. Office of Electricity defines a microgrid as “… localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously. Because they are able to operate while the main grid is down, microgrids can strengthen grid resilience and help mitigate grid disturbances as well as function as a grid resource for faster system response and recovery.

Microgrids support a flexible and efficient electric grid by enabling the integration of growing deployments of distributed energy resources such as renewables like solar. In addition, the use of local sources of energy to serve local loads helps reduce energy losses in transmission and distribution, further increasing the efficiency of the electric delivery system.”(2)

Some examples of DERs that comprise these grids are generators, wind, storage, and solar. Since microgrids are not a new concept, they have historically been run using 'dirty energy'. However, in the movement towards a clean future, microgrids that run primarily on renewable energy can provide a beneficial alternative.

Currently, microgrids are important to critical services such as hospitals, wastewater treatment plants, and communication towers. However, climate change will pose a major threat to the main grid. Extreme temperature anomalies (cold or heat) and natural disasters can cause the grid to malfunction – both predicted facets of a warmer world. In the present time, blackouts are growing more and more frequent.(3)

Microgrids will play a big role in allowing the world to stay on during major extreme weather events.

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How do they promote energy efficiency and clean energy?

In order to understand how microgrids promote energy efficiency, we need to understand the qualms of the main power grid. Currently, electricity production in the main power system is responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions.(4)

Along with fossil fuel production, there are some other major environmental risks that the traditional grid produces:

  • Vegetation and natural habitat loss from power lines

  • Downstream water and land pollution by-products

  • Over-consumption of water from cooling/steam methods

  • Solid waste production

Microgrids could be the clean answer to distributing energy more efficiently. For starters, it is important to note that 5-6% of energy is lost through transmission lines in the U.S. Since microgrids produce energy near where it is consumed, there would be little to no energy lost in the system and there would be less energy produced for the same energy needed. The use of transmission lines also can destroy vegetation and natural habitats. Thus, the use of fewer transmission lines in this system could encourage the regeneration of biodiversity. Furthermore, when electricity is generated, it produces heat. In a microgrid scenario, this heat would be unused. However, microgrids can utilize this heat energy in a variety of ways. For example, the heat can be used to power homes or warm up water. (5)

When microgrids disconnect from the main grid (islanding), they can provide resilience to end users during natural disasters or extreme weather events. Microgrids can also help “reboot” the main grid in the event of outages or malfunctions. (6)

One of the main ways a microgrid can promote clean energy to users is by utilizing methods of renewable energy production. A microgrid can deploy a large range of clean energy production technologies such as wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel. Coupled with traditional energy production, a microgrid can switch between various energy production methods to be the most efficient. Smart microgrids can be programmed to hit different carbon emission and energy efficiency goals.

When have the capabilities of microgrids been tested in real-world scenarios?

There have been numerous examples of microgrids saving communities from blackouts to natural disasters. The most recent example was during the Rio Dell, California earthquake that occurred on December 24th, 2022. This 6.4 magnitude earthquake created massive havoc with 72,000 businesses and homes estimated to have lost power. During the incident, the Blue Lake Rancheria – a Native American reservation – remained an emergency resource service due to its microgrid. During the outage, the microgrid served 8% of the region’s population and provided aid to 10,000 people. (7) The microgrid was powered by solar panels and batteries.

This is not the first time that the Blue Lake Rancheria has been credited with aiding the community during a grid outage. In 2019, California was taken over by wildfires and many residents were faced with extended outages and a lack of medical equipment. The microgrid at the rancheria remained fully functioning and around 10,000 people were served with medical and electrical needs. It is estimated that four lives were saved by the microgrid and the assistance from the native people.(8)

The Blue Lake Rancheria is not the only microgrid that has withstood natural disasters. Some other notable examples include the numerous microgrids in Puerto Rico that helped the community stay on the grid during Hurricane Fiona, a solar microgrid in Malawi that helps children receive life-changing education, and the solar and natural gas microgrid at Pittsburgh International Airport that saved $1 million dollars in energy costs.

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References:

  1. Elisa Woods, “What Is a Microgrid? | Microgrid Knowledge,” Microgrid Knowledge, March 28, 2020, https://www.microgridknowledge.com/about-microgrids/article/11429017/what-is-a-microgrid.

  2. U.S. Office of Electricity, “The Role of Microgrids in Helping to Advance the Nation's Energy System,” Energy.gov, accessed December 30, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/oe/activities/technology-development/grid-modernization-and-smart-grid/role-microgrids-helping.

  3. Nathaniel Lee, “Why the U.S. Is Struggling to Modernize the Electric Grid,” CNBC (CNBC, August 12, 2022), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/08/12/why-the-us-is-struggling-to-modernize-its-power-grid.html.

  4. “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), accessed December 30, 2022, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

  5. “About the U.S. Electricity System and Its Impact on the Environment,” EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), accessed December 30, 2022, https://www.epa.gov/energy/about-us-electricity-system-and-its-impact-environment.

  6. “Microgrids,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, October 25, 2017, https://www.c2es.org/content/microgrids/.

  7. Ari Plachta , “Humboldt Tribe Became Island of Power during Earthquake Blackouts | the ...,” The Sacramento Bee (The Sacramento Bee, December 23, 2022), https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article270311677.html.

  8. Peter Maloney, “Life Won Thanks to the Blue Lake Rancheria Microgrid,” Microgrid Knowledge, November 11, 2019, https://www.microgridknowledge.com/editors-choice/article/11429301/life-won-thanks-to-the-blue-lake-rancheria-microgrid.