Microscope on the Microgrid

Why Microgrids Alone are not the Panacea to Grid Resiliency

By Scott Foster, Delta Energy & Communications

After Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico leaving months of electricity blackouts across the country in its wake, microgrids were thrust into the spotlight as a potential solution to add resiliency to the electric grid, given their capability to fully disconnect from the grid and operate independently, if needed. Microgrids received similar attention–and federal funding–back in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy cut off electricity to much of the northeast U.S.

Microscope  on the Microgrid Why Microgrids Alone are not the  Panacea to Grid Resiliency By Scott Foster, Delta Energy & Communications

They’re popping up across the U.S., in places like Brooklyn, New York; Sonoma, California; and even on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, which houses one of the nation’s largest microgrids. In addition, outside of the U.S., microgrids are gaining more attention–particularly in developing countries where there might be no grid power and microgrids offer a safe and reliable alternative. In fact, a recent report from IDC, “IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Utilities 2018 Predictions,” indicates that through 2020, emerging markets will “offer the largest growth opportunity for microgrids, reducing the need for bulk transmission systems and creating new revenue streams for up to 25 percent of utilities worldwide in the form of microgrid as a service (MaaS).”

Whether in developed or undeveloped countries, a combination of distributed energy resources (DER) like rooftop solar, battery energy storage and microgrids could certainly better protect communities from situations like that currently seen in Puerto Rico. These new approaches, however, are not a panacea to prevent future failure of the grid.

Instead, a combination of microgrids, smart grid technologies, distributed generation resources and operational analytics and intelligence together will help enhance the grid’s resiliency. Here we examine the current impact that microgrids already have on the industry and the solutions that can enhance their effectiveness.

Microgrids on the Rise

The major intention for microgrids, small-scale power grids that can operate independently or in conjunction with an area’s main electrical grid, is that they can power themselves and operate independently in the case of an outage with the central grid. This is known as “islanding.”

Microgrids have risen in popularity over the past few years, largely driven by grid resilience concerns in the wake of natural disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. and numerous others. In fact, according to a market report from the Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) and Navigant Research, global annual revenue from microgrids rose 29 percent between 2015 and 2016, reaching $6.8 million at the beginning of 2017. In the U.S. alone, the market has more than doubled since 2011.

The modular nature of microgrids is considered a major benefit in helping the main electric grid be less susceptible to localized disasters. In one example from Superstorm Sandy, most of Manhattan below 36th Street was powerless after the storm hit due to severe flooding that knocked out a power station. On the New York University campus, however, key buildings stayed alight because of a self-sufficient microgrid system. The microgrid system was designed to distribute electricity independently of Consolidated Edison’s main grid network.

In another example in North Carolina, the power was cut off to Ocracoke Island after a construction company accidentally cut the transmission cables feeding power to those islands. But, North Carolina Electric Membership Corp. had invested in a microgrid, which helped provide power for island residents, despite the transmission line being out for seven days.

Resilience against natural disasters aside, microgrids also are being considered as offering significant opportunity for developing countries lacking in access to electricity and infrastructure. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 600 million people do not have access to electricity. Places like Mali, which has more than 200 diesel microgrids in operation, are indicating that the microgrid could provide the answer to more widespread electricity and internet access in undeveloped countries.

Enhancing Effectiveness

Despite the many opportunities that microgrids present, we can not think of them as the panacea to battling the shortcomings of the overall grid and future failures. There is a common misconception that microgrids alone can be substitutes for the larger electric grid. But ultimately, if a microgrid is serving more than one building, it’s relying on much of the same grid as we use today.

Instead, we must capitalize on the opportunities presented by microgrids, by considering a combination of solutions–microgrids, smart grid technologies, distributed generation resources, and operational analytics and intelligence–working in harmony together.

There’s beem growing interest in these types of solutions in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which saw widespread power outages. After the disaster, the country made changes to move toward microgrids, distributed generation and smart energy systems, with the coastal city Higashi-Matsushima choosing to construct microgrids to create a self-sustaining system. Not only is this system capable of producing an average of 25 percent of its electricity without needing the region’s power utility, but it also can keep power running for a minimum of three days if disaster were to strike again.

Asset performance, power distribution and overall system efficiencies depend on the size of the microgrid. Integrating smart grid technologies, operational analytics and intelligence are critical to enhancing the effectiveness of the microgrid and providing visibility into these key areas.

Take the example of an outage and the integration of asset performance management innovations with the microgrid. These types of tools can detect an issue and identify the potential source of that issue, perhaps reroute around the problem, and keep the power on for as many people as possible–thus identifying minor problems before they become major. In addition, because the outage is identified as it’s happening in real-time, the time it takes to restore power can be significantly reduced.

Not only can integrating these types of tools help manage operational assets of the microgrid and improve operational performance, but they can improve the customer experience as well.

Future Microgrid Resiliency

It is clear that the popularity around microgrids will only continue to grow as concerns about overall grid resilience continue. Microgrids alone, however, are not the solution to the challenges facing the electric grid. Implementing analytics and intelligence solutions to enhance the viability of the microgrid, however, will put us well on our way to a more resilient, efficient grid that can better safeguard against potential outages.

Scott Foster has more than 30 years in the energy sector. He specializes in business development and executive management, and currently serves as the founder, president and CEO of Delta Energy & Communications Inc.

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