There has been a lot of talk about microgrids recently, and for good reason: in our increasingly digitized world, a more reliable energy grid capable of providing power to facilities like hospitals or data centers (where even brief brownouts can cost money or lives) is becoming essential. While normal grids are still the most prevalent ways of providing electricity throughout the world, microgrids are quickly becoming an efficient, reliable, and environmentally-friendly alternative.
What is a Microgrid?
The normal energy grids that connect homes, businesses, and other buildings to central power sources - allowing us to use appliances, HVAC systems, electronics, etc. - typically have a centralized generating station with a very large power generation capacity. While this system has its benefits, unfortunately, it also means that when part of that grid has to be repaired, everyone on the grid is affected. How can we combat this to provide more reliable energy to the places it matters most?
Microgrids are quickly becoming one of the most viable solutions. A microgrid is essentially a local energy grid with independent control capability, which means it can disconnect or “island” from the traditional main grid and operate autonomously by using local energy generation in case of a power outage. Microgrids can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, and/or renewable resources like solar panels.
The Microgrid Solution
In many ways, microgrids are smaller versions of the traditional power grid. They consist of power generation, distribution, and controls such as voltage regulation and switch gears just like current electrical grids do. However, microgrids differ in that they provide a closer proximity between power generation and power use, resulting in efficiency increases and transmission reductions.
Some microgrids stand on their own, apart from any larger grid, often in remote rural areas. These off-grid microgrids are a relatively cheap and quick way to secure some access to power for people who now lack it, often more quickly than large, centralized grids can be extended.
Benefits of Microgrids
There are several benefits of microgrids, including their backup capabilities in case of emergencies. These include:
- Lower energy costs.
- Increase power reliability.
- Can connect to local resources that are too small or unreliable for traditional grid use, thus improving local energy delivery.
- Allow communities to be more energy-independent.
- Are environmentally friendly and can integrate with renewable energy sources, including:
- Solar power
- Wind power
- Geothermal power
- Combined heat and power (CHP) systems
Types of Microgrids
There are several types of microgrids, which are defined based on how they function.
- Community Microgrid: Integrated into utility networks and serves critical facilities in a town or city, often backed by government funding. Its primary purpose is to ensure power to services that people can’t live without for an extended period of time.
- Remote Microgrid: Often found on islands or in isolated areas of the world which lack a central utility grid. It operates independently and relies solely on its own generators to keep the power flowing.
- Customer/Campus Microgrid: Is fully interconnected with a local utility grid, but can also maintain some level of service in isolation from the grid (like during a utility outage). Typical examples serve university and corporate campuses, prisons, and military bases.
- Nanogrid: Comprised of small network units that can operate independently. A nanogrid can be defined as a single building or a single energy domain.
The number of installed microgrids is small, but it's growing in many regions around the world. They have the potential to dramatically change the way we implement and distribute electrical power to businesses, communities, and homes throughout the U.S. And while they may never fully eliminate the need for traditional power grids, large utilities, or power plants, moving more power generation and management towards local control makes everyone less dependent on them.