Will Congress Include Microgrids in Upcoming Energy Legislation?

March 24, 2015
Will microgrids be included in upcoming energy legislation being mulled by Congress? Hard to say, but the topic definitely drew some interesting discussion before the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources last week

Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Will microgrids be included in upcoming energy legislation being mulled by Congress? Hard to say, but the topic definitely drew some interesting discussion before the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources last week.

The committee heard testimony about electric grid advances in preparation for an upcoming energy bill that is expected to have a strong electric power focus.

Peter Littlewood, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, offered plenty for the committee to think about, in his answer to a question by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts.  Warren wanted to better understand how renewables and microgrids create resiliency, which is industry code for keeping the lights on when a natural disaster strikes.

Littlewood explained the danger or relying on a monolithic, centralized grid.

“The grid is a very complicated object. Even now when it’s being driven in a one-way mode, it interacts in very complicated and very subtle ways. And actually we do not understand it,” Littlewood said.

A resilient grid needs to be less a “single connected object” and more a web, like the Internet, he said.

“One of the dangers in major disasters is that you lose first the grid, then the Internet, then water, then the ability to distribute many, many different kinds of things,” he said. “The very basic principles of resilience tell you that one monolithic, big thing is a dangerous thing to be working with.”

Microgrids, which can operate independently from the grid, offer a way to keep power flowing to critical infrastructure when the central grid fails.

Microgrids also got a boost from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, committee chair, who pointed out the role her state, Alaska, has played in microgrid development.  Alaska leads the world in microgrid development.

“We’re talking a lot in my state about microgrids. Many people don’t think of us as being pioneers in this area, but what we are doing with microgrids – what used to be called “isolated islanded grids” – is really making a difference in a state where sometimes it’s tough to keep warm and keep the lights on,” she said in her opening remarks.

By way of example, the Republican senator cited a remote southwestern Alaskan village that keeps the lights on with a microgrid that includes a few wind turbines, batteries and small heating units in homes. She described the microgrid as “perfect for them.”

The hearing “The State of Technological Innovation Related to the Electric Grid,” also drew testimony from American Electric Power, the Electric Power Research Institute, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Archived video of the March 17 hearing is here.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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