More than a fair-weather energy source: Solar + microgrids offer resilience

Dec. 21, 2021
Mark Feasel, president of Smart Grid North America at Schneider Electric explains that microgrids are key to creating resilience with solar.

Mark Feasel, president of Smart Grid North America at Schneider Electric explains that microgrids are key to creating resilience with solar.

Mark Feasel, president of Smart Grid North America at Schneider Electric

What do you think of when you think of solar? If you’re like most, you likely think of solar in the traditional sense, like the solar panels you may have seen on your neighbor’s roof or in a nearby field outside of a corporate building park. However, solar energy is much more than that. Solar energy is now going beyond traditional use cases, and when combined with technology, it can be controlled and stored for use at times when it makes the most sense. This could be at times when the cost of electricity is at its peak. However, in order to make the most of solar, a microgrid is key. Let’s dive into what this really means.

The common use case

Taking a step back, it’s important to understand how solar energy is captured. Solar energy uses captured sunlight to create photovoltaic power (PV) or concentrated solar power for solar heating. This energy conversion allows solar to power a variety of items from pool heaters to streetlights. This leads many to believe solar is only viable during a sunny day.

Businesses and industries typically use solar technologies to diversify their energy sources, improve efficiency and save money. Solar exists within the complex and interrelated electricity system in the US, often working alongside other technologies like wind power with the goal of transitioning the US to a clean energy economy, as outlined in President Biden’s recent executive order.

Solar power is currently the fastest growing electricity source in the US, accounting for 56% of installed capacity during the first half of 2021. However, there are still some untapped opportunities.

Making the most of solar

When the sun is sparse and storms rage on, solar is ineffective without a microgrid. Many people don’t realize that solar alone can’t operate during a power outage unless it is stored through a battery and activated through a microgrid. When the grid goes down, solar alone will not keep the lights on.

Solar is a great step toward more sustainable energy solutions. But unless you’re capturing and storing the energy produced from your solar panels, that energy will not be accessible and utilized. The Department of Energy found that power outages are currently costing the US economy $28 billion to $169 billion annually. Rather than just focusing on repairing the grid after a major disaster, utilities are taking proactive steps to adapt to climate change by strengthening the grid through resilience measures and incorporating consensus-based standards during long- and short-term planning. Montgomery County in Maryland, a sizable government body bordering Washington D.C., has taken several steps to build in resilience measures through its energy-as-a-service arrangement and innovative power purchase agreement. The county was looking to increase resilience, upgrade electrical infrastructure and enhance sustainability — without upfront capital investment. It found the right solution in installing microgrids — through a partnership with Schneider Electric — at two critical county facilities with no upfront costs through the energy-as-a-service offering. Additional upgrades were also made to the county’s facilities including electrical distribution equipment upgrades, 2 MW of solar, energy management with a building automation system, and combined heat and power.

This project in many ways pioneered a microgrid model for other communities to follow. The two microgrids and upgrades made to the critical facilities help improve the county’s resilience and provide necessary services, even during a power outage.

Energy storage and sophisticated controls are necessary for solar to continue operating during a power outage. The storage and controls allow solar to continue to be utilized when transitioning on and off the grid. Microgrids allow solar to be stored and utilized in an efficient way. They are scalable and modular to meet individual and large-scale needs. This provides resiliency to homes, businesses and buildings of all kinds – including those in critical need of power like hospitals.

Future thinking

The market is ripe for solar and microgrid usage, with the potential to implement change and build a more resilient, cleaner future. As solar markets develop and mature, policymakers and regulators must gradually shift their emphasis toward unlocking flexibility and encouraging the adoption of energy storage. This is because high levels of solar adoption can lead to excess energy production during the day, while also possibly destabilizing the power grid. At this stage, the addition of energy storage becomes valuable, as it allows the renewable electricity to be stored for use during evening hours. Adoption from the top is key to having a collective positive effect on the environment. While consumer solar usage has risen, we need storage adoption to increase simultaneously.

Incorporating microgrids is the next natural, resilient progression of solar adoption. With the power to build more resilient, sustainable communities, solar energy storage provides an opportunity to create impactful change and save lives during extreme circumstances. Energy storage costs have continued to fall, providing a significant opportunity in the next few decades to bring change to the energy and power markets. As net-zero goals drive greater electricity demand in transport and buildings, customer-sited distributed energy resources like solar could play an even more important role in optimizing local energy supply and demand.

Mark Feasel is president of Smart Grid North America at Schneider Electric.

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