Mission clean, firm power: How firm renewables and microgrids are a critical component to a clean energy future

Nov. 22, 2022
Nicole Bulgarino, executive vice president and general manager of Federal Solutions at Ameresco, explains how firm renewables and microgrids can provide a critical component to a clean energy future.

As we work to meet 2050 climate goals, the electrification of everything from our cars to the way we heat our homes and businesses is driving increased demand for clean, reliable electricity. Much of the focus to date has been on developing wind and solar generation, but both of those energy sources are inherently intermittent, therefore, not continuously available.

So how do we create a clean, resilient electric grid that can meet demand 24 hours a day and still reduce carbon emissions? We need to start by diversifying our energy portfolio so that it includes both intermittent and firm renewable energy resources.

Firm renewables fill in the gaps

Firm renewable energy sources include biogases such as renewable natural gas and biodiesel, biomass, geothermal and even hydroelectric. Unlike solar generation that goes offline overnight, firm renewables are available 24 hours a day. They can be stored on-site much like traditional fossil fuels. The difference, of course, is that firm renewables have significantly lower carbon emissions than natural gas and diesel.

Increasingly, our customers are looking for resilient clean energy solutions that offer them the flexibility to operate any time of day and in any weather. That’s driving an increased interest in adding firm renewables.

Consider the state of Hawaii, which has set an aggressive goal to achieve 100% clean energy by 2045. While they has invested significantly in solar energy and, to some extent, wind, the state’s electric utilities now recognize the need for firm clean energy.

The federal government is also taking steps to advance firm renewables. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) extends tax incentives for biodiesel and alternative fuels as well as production tax credits for biomass and other waste-to-energy fuel sources. The IRA also includes funds for biofuel infrastructure development that should ultimately help to make these fuels competitive with wind and solar technologies.

Microgrids are key

Because there is no one fuel or energy source that will provide us the carbon-free, resilient energy grid we need, microgrids will be a key component of the energy transition. Microgrids can manage and optimize the use of grid power, biofuels, energy storage, wind and solar -- seamlessly switching between sources without interrupting the power supply to the end user.

By considering factors like weather, load and power quality, an intelligent microgrid controller can ensure our power is stable and resilient, no matter the energy source. 

Get this report on Driving Resiliency Through Your Organization’s Energy Infrastructure.

Firm power requires diversified energy solutions

As we design and upgrade our electric grid, the key will be finding the right balance of energy resources. Solar and wind have their place, but demand may not align with their availability. Imagine a world where our grid is dominated by solar. If everyone heads home from work and plugs in their electric vehicle just as the sun is starting to set, demand will quickly exceed solar capacity.

Battery storage can help manage peak loads or short-term transitions between energy sources, but we’re not at a point where energy storage can affordably provide the same reliability as firm renewables.

A diverse portfolio that optimizes clean energy from both intermittent and firm renewable sources will provide the energy security we need and should be a critical component of the global energy transition.

Nicole Bulgarino is executive vice president and general manager of Federal Solutions at Ameresco. Get this report on Driving Resiliency Through Your Organization’s Energy Infrastructure.

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