Microgrid 2021 Kicks Off with Expert Panel on Why Today’s Grid Makes Microgrids Necessary

May 11, 2021
The electric grid’s shortcomings are affecting businesses and other institutions, whether from power outages, rising costs or preferences for how electricity is made, according to a panel of microgrid experts who spoke today at Microgrid 2021: The World Awakens to Microgrids.

Increasingly, the electric grid’s shortcomings are affecting businesses and other institutions, whether from power outages, rising costs or preferences for how electricity is made, according to a panel of microgrid experts who spoke today at Microgrid 2021: The World Awakens to Microgrids, an eight-day virtual conference hosted by Microgrid Knowledge.

In many cases, microgrids offer a solution through 24/7 electricity, lower costs and sustainable energy production, the panelists said.

With rise in power use, grid issues come into sharper focus

Grid reliability and cost issues are coming into sharper focus as states and the federal government are encouraging a shift away from fossil fuels that is expected to drive up electric use, according to Mark Feasel, smart grid president for Schneider Electric North America.

With the electrification of the transportation and building sectors, electric use is forecast to roughly double over the next 20 years, Feasel said.

However, he noted, the power grid was built piecemeal over the last century and isn’t designed for the energy transition, which includes a desire for renewable energy.

“When I think about electric vehicles, when I think about indoor agriculture, I think about segments in which sustainability is very important,” Feasel said. “So adding a bunch of new loads to the grid, but then using “brown” power to charge those cars or to power the light that’s going to allow those plants to grow … that’s probably not the ideal outcome.”

In addition, the grid was built with centralized power plants that deliver electricity via long power lines, leaving it vulnerable to extreme weather and cyberattacks, he said.

In part because of power outages in Texas and California, people are increasingly aware of how they rely on electricity and the costs of not having it, according to Feasel.

Military microgrids kick in during outages

The US Air Force dealt with a spate of power outages when Winter Storm Uri brought frigid temperatures from Texas to Minnesota in mid-February, according to Shawn Bennett, senior advisor for the Air Force’s Office of Assurance.

During the winter storm, several Air Force facilities switched to backup power because of outages, Bennett said. At the same time, several local utilities asked other bases to separate from the grid to reduce the utilities’ loads, he said.

The Air Force is reviewing its experience with the rolling blackouts with an eye to improving the resiliency of its facilities, according to Bennett.

The Marine Corps’ Air Station Miramar in San Diego, which has a microgrid, helped ease stress on the grid in mid-August when the California Independent System Operator ordered rolling blackouts during a heat wave, Mick Wasco, energy manager at the base, said during the panel discussion.

The base used the microgrid during the blackouts to reduce the areawide load on the grid, making it easier for the utility to supply power to its customers, he said.

The microgrid at the 23,000 acre air base has on-site generation, including 4 MW of diesel, 3 MW of natural gas, 3.2 MW of landfill gas and 1.3 MW of solar. The base is adding 2 MW of battery storage, according to Wasco.

Microgrids help meet customer needs

While the Miramar microgrid is highly sophisticated, it is an example of what can be done at many other sites, according to Feasel, whose company helped install the microgrid.

Schneider Electric, for example, built microgrids for credit unions in Puerto Rico by adding solar and battery storage to facilities that already had backup diesel generators, he said.

Microgrids are a potential solution for commercial and industrial customers who want to make sure they aren’t affected by power outages, according to panelist Joe Gammie, PowerSecure business development engineer.

Join Microgrid Knowledge May 13 for the second day of Microgrid 2021 for lively more discussions on microgrid reliability. Registration for the conference is free. However, to join the May 13 sessions, registration must be completed by midnight May 12.

Microgrids are becoming less expensive as the cost for distributed, on-site generation is falling, he said.

PowerSecure recently built microgrids for a hog farm in North Carolina, for distribution centers for a national tool retailer and for Bennettsville, South Carolina, Gammie said.

The microgrid at the hog farm uses methane emissions from pig waste to produce electricity. It also has on-site solar and a battery system.

Using microgrids to lower operating costs

The Air Force is developing a microgrid at an air base in Massachusetts by combining a wind turbine and a battery storage system with existing backup diesel generators, according to Bennett.

Besides providing resiliency to the base, the Air Force will use the generators to provide demand response to ISO New England, which runs the electric grid and wholesale power markets in New England. It will use the batteries to provide frequency regulation to the grid operator, producing revenue for the base, Bennett said.

“We’re kind of asking these assets to do double duty, not only to provide resilience in case the grid goes down, but also offset the cost during normal operations by generating revenue or offsetting our costs,” he said.

Advantage of EaaS model

Commercial and industrial customers can take a similar approach through an energy-as-a-service (EaaS) model where components of the microgrid can be used to financial advantage, Gammie said.

Besides reducing the financial risks for a customer, the EaaS model shifts technical and regulatory risks onto the microgrid developer, according to Feasel.

Microgrids are also becoming modular so an original installation can be expanded — say, by adding energy storage or more distributed generation — at lower cost compared to a complete retrofit, he said.

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About the Author

Ethan Howland

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