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Microgrids: A critical key to the energy transition

February 10, 2021

By Mark Wilson

Providing reliable, resilient, and sustainable energy solutions

Microgrids are a growing segment of the energy transition and represent the shift from centralized power towards more localized and distributed generation solutions.

As power outages become more common, the microgrid’s ability to isolate from the larger grid makes them an attractive option in cities, suburbs, and rural communities alike. Similarly, when the main power grid has little resilience in the face of disruption, especially when presented with extreme weather events, microgrids represent a stable plan B.

While energy markets continue to transition to cleaner, more sustainable models, the microgrid’s ability to balance generation from renewable power sources such as solar, wind, and hydro—as well more traditional sources like gas-fueled combustion turbines—is yet another attractive feature.

In its most basic sense, a grid consists of a power source, users, wires to connect them, and a system to control it all. A microgrid is a smaller version of this. It can range from one or several buildings and can power critical infrastructure, small communities, or even industrial sites. This evolving technology provides clean and efficient energy, enhances resiliency, and improves the operation and stability of the local electric grid. 

Buildings with their own microgrids can island off and allow the building to power itself.

“Islanding” from the main grid

An early driver for the development of microgrids was increased reliability for facilities sensitive to electrical outages. A defining element of a microgrid is its ability to connect and disconnect from the larger grid during outages that can cause blackouts or brownouts. When the main grid falters, the microgrid quickly takes over to deliver electricity from local energy sources. 

By “islanding” from the larger grid, a microgrid can continue serving the original load while simultaneously serving the surrounding community by supporting critical services with power.

Microgrids can generate energy using combined heat and power (CHP) and reciprocating engine generators. A great example is the NASA campus that no longer relies entirely on the main power grid. Now, powered by CHP, the station can operate on its own as a microgrid even if the public grid service is interrupted. 

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The NASA CHP Microgrid in Houston, TX

Resiliency during disruption

Oftentimes, the main power grid has little resilience in the face of disruption, especially when presented with extreme weather events.

Additional challenges exist for rural communities who commonly face extreme weather events and are serviced by long radial lines located at the end of the grid. The average age for those living in rural communities has slowly been rising, leaving some of our most vulnerable citizens isolated and potentially without the electrical equipment they need to survive.

During these outage events, utilities tend to use a triage methodology. This means that they prioritize the most critical issues that can be solved in an efficient time frame. In other words, they focus on stabilizing the network and reconnecting the largest number of customers possible, potentially leaving these small remote communities and customers without power for very long periods of time. 

Microgrids add valuable flexibility to our infrastructure and enable our ability to respond to future challenges.

For example, when New Brunswick, Canada was hit with a series of fierce winter storms in late December 2013 and early January 2014, tens of thousands of customers were left without power. At the peak of the storms, 54,000 people were without power at the same time! Many people had their power back within a few days thanks to NB Power and neighboring utilities. However, those in rural areas reported they were waiting up to 14 days for their power to be restored.

Rural consumers are better set up to succeed on their own if they have access to microgrid technology, which can provide the resiliency and back-up that these communities desperately need during these extreme situations.

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Gull Bay Microgrid solar panels in Gull Bay, Ontario.

A cleaner electrical future   

Microgrids are poised to play a significant role in promoting the development and integration of renewables throughout the grid. This is especially true as the development of hybrid microgrid systems increases. Hybrid systems are those that combine different forms of generation together onto one grid, including wind, solar, and hydro. Hybrid systems often incorporate an energy storage component. This helps to save energy when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing so that we can use it when we need it most.

This continued evolution in microgrid configuration unlocks new potential. How? It can improve economic and environmental performance to operators and communities by reducing energy costs and cutting carbon emissions. In a market where local, renewable resources are approaching cost parity with grid power, community implementation of such microgrids can also offer rate payer price certainty as new energy services agreements are inked with microgrid owners and operators.

In rural Canada, our teams did just that. By combining a newly installed microgrid with the use of solar and battery storage, the Ojibway Nation community in Gull Bay, Ontario was able to create a clean energy microgrid. Ultimately, this is helping to reduce the use of diesel fuel by approximately 130,000 liters per year. 

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A clean energy microgrid can be created by combining a microgrid with the use of solar and battery storage.

Moving beyond barriers

Despite their many advantages, microgrids face significant barriers to widespread implementation. These include conflicting regulations at the federal, state, and local levels. Microgrids hold great promise for the future, but changes to the market structures will take time.

Although the implementation of microgrids continues to gain traction, many are being implemented as pilots and demonstrations and regulators are struggling to keep up with new technologies and market conditions. While rules and regulations exist to protect consumers from unreasonable costs and guarantee continued access to energy, they simultaneously slow down the potential for the integration of microgrids as well as other renewables.

For consumers and utilities who suffer from extended outages, the benefits speak for themselves. Updating market rules and regulations will provide more freedom to utilities and private developers, helping them build the necessary infrastructure required to increase reliability and efficiency to people all over the world.

If implemented correctly, microgrids will significantly contribute to the energy transition. As we have seen in our own lives over the past few months, the need to be flexible is key. If we’ve learned any lesson from 2020, it’s to spend our energy embracing change rather than fighting it.

Microgrids add valuable flexibility to our infrastructure and enable our ability to respond to future challenges. This new technology may not eliminate traditional sources of energy anytime soon, but it will help drive the transition to a more efficient, flexible, and reliable electrical system.   

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  • Mark Wilson

    With more than three decades of experience with electrical utility and industrial projects, Mark leads our Renewables, Thermal Generation, and Heavy Industrial Process sectors.

    Contact Mark
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