When the electricity goes out, the lights often turn on inside the minds of innovators. Enter the world of microgrids, which is becoming a harbinger of energy trends as more and more companies and campuses with sensitive operations need a continuous flow of power.
Microgrids are systems set up to power specific locations — not whole communities but localized areas. That is a technology that has come to fruition not just to increase electricity reliability but to also diminish pollution, and because it has become more difficult — politically — to expand centralized transmission networks that have traditionally delivered power to the masses.
And those localized microgrid networks often work in unison with onsite, or distributed, power such as solar rooftop panels and battery storage devices, which can harness electricity and release it on to the microgrid when it is needed. Among the enterprises using such high technology are hospitals, chip makers and the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We will see grid stability and decentralized energy systems expand globally, not just in the United States,” says Mike Carlson, president of Siemens Smart Grid North America. “It’s not just harsh weather that it is forcing these discussions. It is also cyber security and the demands to reduce emissions. This has transformed the business case.”
Siemens, for example, is partnering with a Native American reservation, Humboldt University and PG&E Corp. to build a community microgrid in Northern California that runs on solar panels, biomass and diesel generators, in combination with battery storage. The microgrid will service a 100-acre territory.
Meanwhile, Oncor Electric has developed a microgrid that is increasing reliability and maximizing its use of renewable fuels. It can operate totally independent of a large central generator, although many such microgrids will kick on only when the utility power flickers out. The power company’s project was designed by Schneider Electric and S&C Electric while the battery that it uses to harness the electricity was developed by Tesla Motors.
Microgrids are getting the attention of utilities, not as potential threats but as a possible complement to their business models. It’s all part of their smart grid layout, which seeks to add security, reduce emissions and minimize costs.
“Utilities are benefiting their customers by taking better advantage of their existing power supply and existing infrastructure — not building new plants — and looking at all the ways they can do that and still benefit the customers for the same costs,” says Larsh Johnson, chief technical officer at Siemens Smart Grid. “They are helping to develop microgrids, distributed control and thermal energy storage, all of which is helping them to avoid new peaking generation.”