Going Micro? Ask questions, find experts

In today’s world, when our power supply is cut off, almost everything we do stops with it. During a power outage, every second is crucial. Blackouts are more than just an inconvenience, they pose threats to our safety and our economy.

According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. suffers more blackouts than any other country in the developed world. The DOE also reports that power outages lasting more than an hour are increasing and cost American businesses around $150 billion a year. With an increasing demand for energy along with our country’s aging infrastructure, we could see the number of blackouts increase.

With the increased likelihood of more blackouts, many sectors of the economy, most notably manufacturing, need to determine alternative sources of power to keeping running. Critical facilities such as hospitals and military bases have become early microgrid adopters, but now, the manufacturing sector is seeing the potential long-term benefits to this technology.

But, when should operators of these facilities consider a microgrid as a back-up power source?  What are the benefits of a microgrid?  What are the challenges?  Where to begin?

Does my facility need a microgrid?

Traditionally, microgrids have been installed in remote areas to serve as self-sufficient “island power grids”. Without them, a power outage in remote communities could take several days to repair. Hospitals and military bases, who can’t afford to lose power, also began to install microgrids to keep critical facilities operational.

However, as the technology has become more prevalent, more industries, especially those in manufacturing are considering them to keep their operations running.  The reasons for this are obvious.  Down time during a power outage presents major problems that halt the ability to work. There are several consequences when employees are without power, including lost time productivity, manufacturing disruptions, lost inventory or purchases. Most of those losses are not recoverable and can potentially hurt customer satisfaction, hurting the future of the business.

An E Source report found that manufacturers tend to take the biggest hits from long outages, the financial services, healthcare, and grocery sectors also see significant penalties, even for short outages. In the same report, almost 80 percent of businesses reported that they will, or likely will, invest in reliability improvements in the next few years.

Anticipating for severe disruptions that are almost certain, companies can minimize their impact. As part of your facilities risk assessment, it’s a consideration for manufacturers to start having discussions on whether a microgrid is something that their facility needs.


What are the benefits?

A microgrid not only provides backup power to grid in case of emergencies, but can also reduce energy costs, or connect to a local resource such a wind or solar. In other words, a microgrid allows facilities to be more energy independent and more environmentally friendly.

A microgrid generally operates while connected to the grid, but importantly, it can island and operate on its own using local energy generation in times of crisis like storms or power outages, or for other reasons.

Scientific research predicts more severe hurricanes, winter storms, heat waves, floods and other extreme weather events being among the changes in climate. Grid resilience is increasingly important as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather.

In the past few years, notable natural disasters have left millions without power, from days to several months. With devastating wildfires frequent in California, utilities have had no choice but to shut off their power lines during “critical fire weather conditions”. Last fall in the town of Paradise, utilities acknowledged their equipment likely sparked the deadly fire, which devastated the town and surrounding communities. To prevent any further damage, residents were warned to expect imminent blackouts. Looking to avoid causing another fire, residents in California can expect to face even more blackouts as utilities look to prevent igniting such events.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall, displaced 30,000 people, and destroyed over 200,000 homes and businesses. With more than $125 million in damages, Harvey became one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history.

While more than 250,000 homes and businesses were without power, a few microgrids helped provide electricity to twenty-one grocery stores and gas stations allowing them to provide food and water to the victims. More importantly, they were able to provide fuel to the search and rescue teams working several days to save thousands of residents stranded throughout Houston. The microgrids allowed those stores to serve as an important resource center to the area during those devastating days.

As natural disasters continue to intensify, the need for more reliable and alternative power extends to manufacturers. Staying operational and productive while being able to communicate to other company factory’s or offices, employees, suppliers and customers are critical and microgrids can help solve these issues.

What are the challenges to installing a microgrid?

There are several challenges that need to be considered and carefully thought through. Is the facility or factory going to expand? Does your company have space and appropriate surrounding infrastructure to support a microgrid?  Does your company have the resources, both financial and human to manage this investment? Will your utility allow a microgrid to be built and connected to the grid?

Furthermore, understanding local and state laws with regards to power generation is also critical.  While more and more local governments are understanding the value of microgrids, some are still behind in drafting legislation or regulations for microgrids.  What laws and regulations exist, if any for a facility to have its own power generation platform?  Also, if the company’s manufacturing facility is in a region where microgrid technology has been embraced, would the company receive financial incentives for installing a microgrid? 

Another important part is understanding how the manufacturer’s microgrid connects to the rest of the surrounding power grid.  As the U.S. country begins reducing fossil fuel usage and relying more on renewable energy, it must first improve its entire electrical grid by increasing infrastructure to integrate a high amount of renewable generation and incorporate more advanced grid planning to maintain reliability.  Additional microgrids add to the complexity of this infrastructure and manufacturers will need to understand how their power generation fits into the overall power eco-system.

Where to begin?

It’s important for manufacturers to engage with experts who have a full understanding of power distribution and energy storage. With so many different components, switches, hardware and software and technical details, it’s critical to have partners who cannot only install the system but can provide consultative and customized solutions to your facility.  Furthermore, working with a partner who can work seamlessly with facility operators and external organizations such as utilities and who understands all the technical and regulatory requirements is a must.  Each manufacturing facility is different and integrating the microgrid into the facility as well the overall energy grid takes experts who know and understand the challenges.


About the author: Kate Cummings is a product manager for switchgear for G&W Electric and previously was supervisor for its production electronics engineering group. She has worked previously for Ohmite Manufacturing and Maplechase. Cummings is actively involved in IEEE and NEMA.



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