Microgrids: A Strategy of Resilience in an Era of Extremes

June 30, 2014

E&E News:

Two years ago this week, a fierce, fast-moving thunderstorm system known as a derecho ripped through the Mid-Atlantic leaving more than 1 million of Maryland’s 2.5 million electricity customers without power.

In the aftermath of the storm, the state stepped up efforts to improve the resiliency and reliability of the grid. This week, at the behest of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) released a road map for microgrid deployment as part of a strategy to withstand future storms, which are expected to become more intense as a result of climate change.

Building microgrids is one possible solution. A microgrid combines various loads with distributed energy resources and advanced control equipment to allow portions of the electric grid to operate independently from the larger grid network, or to “island” in the case of the macrogrid going down.

Islanding capability is attractive to universities, hospitals and military installations aiming to protect their critical loads. It’s also attractive to communities looking to survive the next storm, a dynamic that is spurring the development of a new, potentially controversial microgrid model.

Interest in microgrids has soared in recent years as extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy have battered the United States and as the price of solar, combined heat and power plants and other decentralized energy sources has dropped.

As part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the Department of Energy launched a microgrid competition yesterday that will give six operational microgrids an award of $100,000. The submissions, due Aug. 29, are intended to help DOE learn more about how microgirds can improve grid resiliency while promoting cleaner, cost-effective power generation.

According to Navigant Research, North America will be the global leader in total microgrid capacity through 2020, when global annual market revenue is expected to hit $40 billion.

In the United States, military microgrids will be a key market driver. More than 40 U.S. military bases already have microgrids in operation, or that are in the planning or study stage. College campuses across the country have also established microgrids, including Princeton University; University of Missouri, St. Louis; and University of California, San Diego.

Single customer, or “campus-style,” projects used at schools, military bases and even individual buildings are becoming a popular microgrid application. A new, more complex microgrid model in development is one that serves multiple customers over several properties and crosses over public rights of way on the distribution system.

The Maryland report calls these “public purpose microgrids,” which are designed to power a community’s essential operations as well as services that maintain quality of life. According to Hopper of MEA, this includes places like grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations.

“If you don’t have power for a week but you have a generator, after the first day when you run out of gasoline it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Or if you can be somewhat comfortable in your home even if you don’t have power, but you run out of your medication and you don’t have anywhere to get it that’s a serious quality of life issue.”

The idea is to link up several community assets to create an “oasis of safety,” said Hopper. “Those are the kinds of microgrids we are really looking at because those are not really being done yet.”

Some see this as a threat to the long-established and successful utility business model.

“Utilities know this is coming. And I’ll be honest, from my vantage point, it scares them to death,” said Leia Guccione, manager of electricity and industrial practices at the Rocky Mountain Institute, speaking at a microgrid summit last week in Washington, D.C.

“Distributed generation of any kind and efficiency is a financial threat to the utilities,” echoed Peter Lilienthal, founder of Homer Energy, a distributed power design company and leader in microgrid software technology. “They’re in an awkward position because they don’t want to sound against it, but it hurts them.”





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