Aquicore – February 10, 2017
By Alex Richardson
The American energy grid is, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious and impressive engineering feats in history. Never before has so much energy been immediately available and transmissible, and it operates on a scale that is difficult to properly imagine.
Fair praise out of the way, there is a small but growing trend that is pushing in the opposite direction: Instead of expanding or connecting to the national energy grid, some companies, municipalities, and individuals are creating miniature grids of their own that can operate independently. These “microgrids” provide options for groups that want lower energy bills, more control over where their energy comes from, or a level of reliability that the grid cannot provide.
The up-front costs for creating what most people in the industry consider a microgrid are still very high, and as a result, they remain economically viable for only a limited set of situations. As Karlee Weinmann, the Energy Democracy Initiative Research Associate at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) pointed out, however, the cost of new technology invariably falls as it is adopted.
“The cost of materials, installation, and maintenance for the components that make up a microgrid are going down, so the value proposition for a microgrid increases in turn,” Weinmann told Aquicore. “The general viability of microgrid projects is also reinforced through replication, like anything else, so the more that various stakeholders test the technology, prove its value, and improve upon it, the easier it is to justify buying in.”
Investments in community microgrids are also justified on this basis. The ILSR report Mighty Microgrids cites Hurricane Sandy, which cut power to 8.5 million people, one million of whom went without power for a week, as one of the key motivators of regional investment in microgrids. While up to 60 percent of backup diesel generators failed in medical centers and other essential facilities, Princeton University’s 20 MW microgrid kept the campus operational in island mode for three days while a connection to the grid was being restored.
Regulations governing interconnection processes can also hinder microgrid adoption, particularly because these regulations vary from state to state. In an ideal world, a national standard would be adopted.
Finally, opposition from utility companies is often a factor that makes the regulatory environment hostile or resistant to positive change.
“As we see it, the future of the grid will be far more decentralized than the system we have now,” said Weinmann. “Rather than paying a far off utility for electricity, which in many cases comes from problematic, dirty sources, customers’ money can stay closer to home.”