Microgrids: The brains behind electrification and an all-renewable grid

Feb. 21, 2022
Engineer and inventor Saul Griffith describes renewable intermittency as the hardest problem remaining to achieve decarbonization. But he says it is not “go-to-the-moon hard, it’s organize-many-things-to-work-together hard.” Enter microgrids.

Microgrids are often characterized as sophisticated backup power — and they are. But that’s not all they are. And ignoring the full scope of their abilities short shrifts their value.

Most ignored, I think, is their ability to balance renewable energy, an increasingly important issue as solar and wind detractors attempt to fault renewables for grid outages. Witness the blame game following Winter Storm Uri in Texas and the California blackout of summer 2020.

In his book, “Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future,” engineer and inventor Saul Griffith describes renewable intermittency as the hardest problem remaining to achieve decarbonization.

But, he says, it is not “go-to-the-moon hard, it’s organize-many-things-to-work-together hard.”

The solution, he says, requires a “commodification of logistics,” something 21st-century businesses are used to doing.

The electricity packet

Energy storage, electric vehicles and demand response — often elements of a microgrid operation — in and of themselves help to keep an all-renewable grid in balance. But how do we organize these things so that they work as a team in serving the customer and the grid? That’s where microgrids come into play. 

Griffith brings us to this conclusion by drawing a parallel between the early days of the internet and today’s evolving grid. 

In the 1970s, researchers funded by the US Defense Department created a “packet,” a unit of information that served as the basis for eventually scaling digital communications to what the internet is today — billions of distributed and connected devices in a worldwide conversation. 

To organize a renewable grid, Griffith says we need something similar — “packets of electricity.” 

“People have implemented such systems on a small scale, often calling them microgrids, but fully electrifying the US’ energy system will require the creation of a decentralized network of all the energy supplies and load in a plethora of overlapping, connected microgrids,” Griffith writes.

Within the energy industry, this plethora is known as a “grid of microgrids,” an approach that is still nascent but has captured the attention of innovators who are working out the underlying protocols, much like federal defense researchers did for the internet nearly 50 years ago. 

An example is a community microgrid in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, Illinois, that represents the first example of a utility bringing together two microgrids that can “talk” and work together. 

Role of blockchain

Also ushering in the “grid of microgrids” are projects that use blockchain trading platforms. Blockchain promises to give consumers the ability to sell energy to each other, bypassing the local utility company. Trial projects are underway in Walenstadt, Switzerland; Brooklyn, New York; and Bangkok, Thailand.

Their ability to organize assets — power generation, storage, the grid, load — makes microgrids the ideal technology to “commodify the logistics” of energy. Microgrids activate energy needed most, when it’s needed. On a grid struggling with intermittency, they can quickly provide service to ensure the power stays on. 

In essence, a microgrid acts as the brain of the distributed energy world. Given that two heads are better than one, many microgrids working in concert offer the kind of efficiency a renewable grid needs.

Learn more about the role of microgrids and decarbonization at Microgrid 2022: Microgrids as Climate Heroes, June 1-2 in Philadelphia. Hurry! Early registration discount ends Feb. 28.

Microgrids are getting better at these logistics as electricity and telecommunications come together, according to Mark Feasel, president of smart grid North America at Schneider Electric, who spoke last week at the winter policy summit of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Washington, D.C.

Feasel pointed to a microgrid run by Marine Corps’ Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California, as an example of the marriage of telecommunications and microgrids. During rolling blackouts in 2020, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) was able to signal the problem to the air force base microgrid, which then stepped in to ensure almost 15 MW of load. Thousands of people did not lose power because of SDG&E’s ability to communicate and coordinate with the microgrid via its telecommunications system and the microgrid’s ability to adjust its operations accordingly.

Electrification plus microgrids

Feasel also painted a picture of a marriage of electrification and microgrids now underway in Montgomery County, Maryland. Schneider is installing a microgrid that will serve a depot for 44 electric buses. Use of advanced analytics and cloud computing will allow the project to provide insight into the electric buses’ energy use, charging pattern and changes in electricity pricing.

The project represents an example of how bringing electricity and data together attracts new funding sources, Feasel said. 

Montgomery County is not required to put any capital into the project. Instead, the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, will fund the project. AlphaStruxure, a joint venture between Schneider Electric and the Carlyle Group, designed, and will build and deliver, the project for the county using an energy-as-a-service model.

The project is just one example of what Feasel described as the “nearly infinite private capital” that wants to come to play — to own energy infrastructure for electrification.

So, if the old adage follow the money still holds, Griffith’s commodification of logistics may be underway, with microgrids revealing themselves as a lynchpin for electrification and a renewable grid.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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