The current electricity grid we’ve set up today is a complex and incredibly important system and one of the most impressive engineering feats of the modern era. It transmits power generated at a variety of facilities and distributes it to end-users, often over long distances, providing electricity to buildings, industrial facilities, schools, homes, and more. Thanks to this feat, we’ve become somewhat dependent on the energy grid today, making sustainability a focus for many moving forward.
It’s no surprise that energy sustainability has become a focal point of the industry today, lest there be a repeat of the Texas incident. Back in February, temperatures in Texas dropped into single digits, nearly causing the state’s power grid to collapse. A state known for its abundant energy resources saw widespread failures of natural gas and electricity systems that left more than four million Texans without power for days, sparking many to figure out how to make sure the incident isn’t repeated, in Texas or anywhere else.
One new practice that is making waves in the world of energy sustainability is the use of microgrids in combination with the main energy grid. The main grid connects homes, businesses, and other buildings to central power sources, which allow us to use appliances, heating/cooling systems, and electronics. But this interconnectedness means that when part of the grid needs to be repaired, everyone is affected. This is where a microgrid can help.
A microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously. The microgrid would connect to the grid at a point of common coupling that maintains voltage at the same level as the main grid unless there is some sort of problem on the grid or other reason to disconnect.
The use of microgrids can play an essential part when it comes to energy sustainability. Because they are able to operate while the main grid is down, microgrids can strengthen grid resilience and help mitigate grid disturbances as well as function as a grid resource for faster system response and recovery. More importantly, a microgrid can break off and operate on its own using local energy generation in times of crisis like storms or power outages, or for other reasons. Leveraging this ability would make providing energy to those during a crisis, like the Texas incident, much easier, as the microgrids can run while the main grid is fixed.
On top of this, resilience is also among the microgrid benefits. Closely related to electric reliability is the idea of energy resilience. While reliability is about keeping the power on, resilience describes the ability to avoid power outages in the first place or to recover quickly if they do occur. A microgrid immediately restores power to an entire building or operation, leaving occupants barely aware a disturbance occurred. They can also be programmed to restore only critical services within a facility. So a college campus, for example, might configure its microgrid to restore power to research labs and dining halls, but perhaps not swimming pools or peripheral academic offices.
Finally, microgrids also offer a myriad of potential when it comes to addressing climate change. Microgrids can employ a wide range of green power production technologies. These include solar, wind, fuel cells, combined heat, and power (CHP) plants, and energy storage technologies. Natural gas generators, used in many CHP plants, fall on the cleaner side of fossil fuels.
Microgrids integrate these renewables into the energy mix intelligently. They seamlessly balance the variable output of renewable energy with traditional generation assets. In doing so, the microgrid overcomes the downside of solar and wind energy, which is that they only generate power when the wind blows or the sun shines
Overall, a microgrid not only provides backup for the grid in case of emergencies but can also be used to cut costs or connect to a local resource that is too small or unreliable for traditional grid use. A microgrid allows communities to be more energy independent and, in some cases, more environmentally friendly. And as we continue to move forward into a digital age, our reliance on the energy grids will only grow, and the need for microgrids will grow with it.