Community Microgrids: Four Examples of Local Energy that Improves Lives

Dec. 19, 2019
Some community microgrids make electricity more reliable and green; others serve critical facilities like fire, police and water treatment facilities; and still others are built for remote outposts that otherwise lack access to electricity. Here are four model examples.

Community microgrids offer a way for neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities to meet their energy needs locally. Some make a community’s electricity more reliable and green; others serve critical facilities like fire, police and water treatment facilities; and still others are built for remote outposts that otherwise lack access to electricity. 

Because their development can be complex, community microgrids often take more time to build than microgrids for businesses, institutions or campuses. So there are fewer in operation. But they are beginning to emerge worldwide. Here are four model community microgrids that illustrate a range of approaches to local energy.

Brooklyn, New York, USA — Blockchain for community microgrids

The Brooklyn Microgrid, run by LO3 Energy as a test project since 2016, began in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn as a way for tenants in a handful of apartment buildings to track the output of their solar panels and eventually to swap energy among participants. 

“Eventually we want to be in all five boroughs,” said Adrienne Smith, Brooklyn Microgrid’s executive director

Brooklyn Microgrid was the first energy project in the US to use blockchain technology for energy transactions. Blockchain is a secure, online ledger used for crypto currencies such as Bitcoin. It has the ability to bring down costs for very small transactions that otherwise would not be economically viable due to transaction costs. LO3 Energy’s vision is to create a platform for peer-to-peer energy trading, creating commuities of true prosumers — producers and consumers of their own energy supply.

“Local energy networks provide a wide range of benefits,” Smith said. “They can help grid operators balance supply and demand for electricity, they can provide consumers with greater choice and cheaper energy, and they can prevent blackouts from extreme heat or snow storms.”

Brooklyn Microgrid’s goals fit well with New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision plan that is seeking market based solutions to incentivize clean energy. New York’s near term target calls for the state to derive 50% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2030.

Pilbara, Western Australia — Testing new technology to deliver increased reliability

Horizon Power’s poster child for the shift to a distributed renewable grid, the Western Australia Pilbara town of Onslow, says its solar and battery microgrid is already helping to deliver more reliable and cleaner power with the installation of a 1 MW solar and battery microgrid.

 “We are achieving up to 90% of the power being delivered in Onslow coming from renewable sources with the commissioning of the solar and battery,” a company spokesperson said.  “However, this is not constant and depends on how much demand, time of the day, cloud cover, etc. The expected reduction in CO2 emissions is 820 tons a year.”

“Before the commissioning of the solar and battery, we had 100% fossil fuel generation in the town, and we are aiming to reach 100% of generation from renewable sources in the town, at certain times of the day and year, as an outcome of this pilot,” the spokesperson said. “We expect to achieve the highest levels of renewable energy penetration during the middle of the day in the cooler months.”

Onslow residents have been incentivized to install solar and batteries at their homes as part of the project which tests the management of renewable energy in an isolated regional community.

“The benefit to the community from this stage of the project is more reliable, cleaner and greener power through the incorporation of utility grade solar and battery assets into the power infrastructure,” said Horizon CEO Stephanie Unwin.

The solar and natural gas-powered microgrid was financially backed by Chevron, which has invested more than $250 million in social and critical infrastructure in the community of Onslow as part of its State Development Agreement. 

 “Investing in the power projects in Onslow means natural gas is partnering with renewables to deliver affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy for the town,” said Nigel Comerford, manager of Chevron Australia’s Wheatstone Plant.

Blue Lake Rancheria, a low-carbon microgrid in Humboldt County, California. Courtesy of Siemens

Humboldt, California, USA — How community microgrids can save lives

Microgrids not only save money and the environment, they save lives.

The Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid is located on the Wiyot, Yurok, and Hupa Native American 76-acre reservation near the small town of Blue Lake in Humboldt County.

During the recent sweep of wild-fire related power shutoffs, Blue Lake Rancheria had power due to its microgrid. The community opened its doors to others from Humboldt County who did not, including people whose health depended on reliable electricity.

When Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) enacted a public service power shutoff (PSPS) — the term California uses when utilities intentionally shut down service to prevent wildfires — the microgrid allowed the tribe to keep its casino, hotel and offices powered up, and provide hotel rooms for medical patients who need electric power for their medical devices.

Do you know of examples of microgrids serving the public good? Nominate them for a Microgrid Greater Good Award. Deadline Feb. 15, 2020. Winners announced at Microgrid 2020.

The Rancheria microgrid was also able to provide a safe, warm environment for local families to charge cell phones and access the internet and power to charge electric vehicles.  The tribe provided a mobile office for Humboldt’s daily newspaper, kept a gas station up and running, and provided fuel for services outside the reservation such as the town of Blue Lakes’ municipal water system and to the Mad River Fish Hatchery so it could keep pumps running to keep fish hatchlings alive.

“In all, we estimate we served about 10,000 people, about 10% of the county’s population, during the outage,” said Jana Ganion, director of sustainability and government affairs at Blue Lake Rancheria. Ganion said the county estimated that the microgrid saved four lives during the first utility power shutoff, which lasted from October 8-10. 

Manipur, India — Overcoming true obstacles to change lives

Some community microgrids are easier to install than others. The Manipur microgrids, found in remote India, are on the far side of not easy.

Workers trekked miles of steep, mountainous, often unpaved terrain to install inverterless, DC solar-storage microgrids in 3,026 homes across 112 villages in 10 districts spread out over a large area in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. 

Trucks were used whenever possible and tractors when inclines were too steep for trucks. Muddy, unpaved roads and mountainous terrain made it difficult to travel during rainy season. At times crews had to halt until conditions were manageable, according to Venkat Rajaraman, Cygni CEO. Villages sometimes took two to three days to reach on foot due to lack of last-mile transportation.

“People in these villages have lived in total darkness for generations as there was no grid connectivity prior to this intervention,” said Rajaraman.

The trek has been worthwhile; the Manipur microgrids are changing lives. 

“When the power becomes available, it opens up numerous other opportunities, the first one being the higher disposable income earned, either due to increased productive hours or due to savings due to reducing kerosene usage,” Rajaraman said. This helps the local environment, too, since microgrids offer a cleaner alternative to burning kerosene. Children benefit – they are now able to study 5-6 hours after sunset.

The project is characterized by its emphasis on community engagement. One example is its creation of ‘maintenance ecosystems.’

“People in these villages have lived in total darkness for generations as there was no grid connectivity prior to this intervention.”

 “To begin with, all the consumers were given basic user training on how to handle the system. A user manual was provided to each home, which had detailed information on different features of the system, instructions on how operate the system, and a maintenance guide,” Rajaraman said. “Additionally, a dedicated team along with a supervisor has been stationed at different districts across Manipur in order to swiftly address any consumer requirements, queries and concerns. A customer care line has also been established for help and support, which allows the users to directly communicate with the local support team.”

“Additionally, each of these 3026 systems is equipped to be monitored remotely, with the server being at IIT, Madras. This has made monitoring the health and status of each system very easy, thereby keeping the maintenance cost at a minimum,” Rajaraman said. 

Each of the Manipur microgrids consists of an inverterless, DC system with integrated 200 W solar panels, lithium-ion battery packs and basic household appliances, such as LEDs. The lithium-ion batteries are expected to last 8-10 years with little need for maintenance, according to Rajaraman. Each microgrid costs $785 to deploy.

Read more about  community microgrids in the Microgrid Knowledge White Paper Library.

About the Author

Lena Goodwin

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