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Sarah Kollmorgen/MEDILL and Next Media

Microgrids can preserve power in severe storms and bring electricity to remote areas.

Lighting the way with microgrids

by Sarah Kollmorgen
Mar 12, 2014


Sarah Kollmorgen/MEDILL

Distribution lines are responsible for delivering electricity to consumers.

Superstorm Sandy left more than 7.9 million people in the dark. Whole neighborhoods of the City that Never Sleeps blacked out, forcing one of the biggest hospitals in the nation, Bellevue Hospital Center, to evacuate more than 700 patients in the chaotic and soggy aftermath of the storm.

Climate scientists predict that extreme weather events like Sandy—or Katrina, or the tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest last fall—are more likely in a warming world. So if the weather cannot be stopped, how can we ensure that the basics, such as power to our hospitals, are protected?

Some energy experts say microgrids could prevent—perhaps eventually end—such energy disruptions. They also say microgrids could make everyday power more reliable and economical, while promoting green-technology on a local level.

Microgrids, technically known as distributed generation, are small-scale energy grids. Like a typical electrical grid, they store, transmit and distribute electricity. But they function in two ways: many can and do link to a main power grid, operating in parallel on a local level. Microgrids are also defined by their ability to work independently, sometimes called “islanding.”

This flexibility makes them ideal in both industrialized urban areas and developing rural areas. According to World Bank statistics, more than 1 billion people globally don’t have access to electricity.

Through microgrids, remote villages in India and Africa may receive reliable power for the first time, increasing quality of life and decreasing poverty rates. In the U.S., microgrids have the potential to prevent massive blackouts bought about by intense storms and exacerbated by our country’s aged infrastructure system.

“Superstorm Sandy was kind of a watershed event, no pun intended,” said Michael Burr, director of the Microgrid Institute. The storm, and the resulting widespread power outages, opened the door to microgrid interest, particularly in Mid-Atlantic states, he said.

In the U.S., microgrids are primarily being tested on university and hospital campuses, as well as military bases, before being tested in commercial settings.

For example, the Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation at the Illinois Institute of Technology operates a microgrid system that has been running for a few years.

“We can separate the campus from the larger grid,” said Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Galvin Center. Shahidehpour said the smart microgrid system helped lower energy costs by determining when it would be cheaper to generate electricity locally, through natural resources, instead of importing energy to campus. “All we are doing is to promote sustainability,” he said.

Commercial implementation may not be far off. Shahidehpour said the Galvin Center is now looking to work with local utilities to expand the center's work.

As it currently stands, the energy infrastructure of the U.S. is substandard. In a report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a measly D+ in 2013 for its energy infrastructure. Illinois also received an overall infrastructure grade of D+, or “Poor,” in its last report card from 2010. Illinois’ next infrastructure report card should be released in early April.

“We’re having to re-wire America,” said Otto Lynch, the VP of Power Line Systems, Inc. “The demand for constant, reliable electricity has increased and we haven’t increased our standards for distribution lines,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest reason we did not improve our grade from a D+.”

The desire for a more resilient and reliable energy system—especially one with fewer blackouts in emergency situations—is just one factor driving the development of microgrids in the United States, Burr said. Other factors include low gas prices, dropping costs in renewable energy technology, and the desire of green-minded communities to integrate local renewable resources, such as wind and solar plants, directly into their energy systems.

However, not everyone thinks microgrids are a dazzling solution to our country’s energy infrastructure problems.

“I just see it as a major step backwards,” Lynch said. He worries that people may overlook the indirect obstacles that microgrids might bring. “You lose the advantage of scale when you go to the microgrid,” he said.

For example, Lynch said running a smaller grid independent of the central grid would necessitate having trained maintenance workers and backup equipment in local communities in case of electrical problems—obstacles large-scale utilities are already accustomed to handling.

“We’re losing the advantage of efficiency of a large utility,” he said.

Instead, Lynch emphasized improvements to current energy infrastructure, such as improving standards for distribution lines, would improve the system immensely. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, electricity losses from transmission and distribution average at about 7 percent of the total electricity transmitted in the country.

Burr believes microgrid maintenance will come with time and experience. Utilities "view it as a business challenge and a technical challenge, because it’s not what they’re used to dealing with,” he said. Burr said microgrid providers are getting better at developing plans that will provide services at the same, or a better level, than utilities currently provide.

One of the biggest obstacles facing microgrid development today is cost, said Marc Lopata, president of Microgrid Solar, an energy services provider based in St. Louis. Many microgrids require additional energy storage components, as well as advanced hardware to control local power resources adn the flow of energy. “It is expensive [to implement microgrids], but there are clients that don’t have an alternative,” he said.

For example, Lopata said his company has done installed microgrids on islands—prime targets for microgrid technology because they are naturally “islanded” and usually pay high prices for importing fuel.

Mainland areas in Africa, India and Nepal, where it’s too geographically and economically difficult to connect to the main electrical grid, are using microgrids to provide remote villages with electricity for the fist time.

“A better, longer-term view is to bring [developing nations] into the modern world with a fully-formed electric system, and the only way that is going to happen in rural areas is through a microgrid system,” Burr said.

In India, Asia and Eastern Europe, some electrical systems are so outdated that systems like microgrids are being implemented instead of fixing the current systems, Shahidehpour said.

Back in the U.S., a clue to whether or not our “re-wiring” will lead to a better energy rating than “poor” might be available in early 2015. In January of this year, President Barack Obama issued the first quadrennial energy review, a report that will come out every four years with an assessment of America’s energy system. The 2015 report will focus specifically on energy infrastructure.

In the meantime, both Burr and Lopata advise keeping an eye on the microgrid market.

“It’s an area of economic growth, and it will be growing in importance as energy costs continue to go up,” Lopata said.