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Tina Casey headshot

How Renewable Energy Can Accelerate the Microgrid Revolution

By Tina Casey

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on the night of August 25, and in the weeks since then the U.S. Energy Department has been flooding the media with news about its work on grid resiliency. It's a timely topic, considering the destructive path carved by Harvey, Jose and Maria. The Energy Department is now focusing more attention on the relationship between microgrids and resiliency. In particular, that includes microgrids that integrate distributed renewable energy resources, aka DERs.

We're probably going to hear much more about microgrids, DERs and "black start" recovery in the coming months. To provide a leg up on the issues, last week TriplePundit gathered some insights from microgrid expert Jared Smith of the global technology and innovation firm PA Consulting.

The following notes from our conversation are edited for flow and readability.

The conventional approach to grid resiliency is not working

Until recently, grid resiliency has focused on hardening utility poles and other conventional infrastructure against extreme weather and other emergencies.

The destruction unleashed by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria has already demonstrated the shortcomings of that strategy, and there are still two months to go in this year's hurricane season.

The ongoing flood of news about cyber attacks -- real and threatened -- has also exposed vulnerabilities in traditional grid design.

Smith outlines the need for making resiliency a top priority, and the need to make radical changes in the way the electrical power industry approaches resiliency:

These events are making us aware of the vulnerability of the grid.

We know that certain grid events are likely to happen, but we need to be more aware of the threat of events, including our vulnerability to cyber attack.

The security of the grid affects everything: the economy, national defense, and our day to day lives.

We also need to be aware that the grid is vulnerable even to relatively minor intrusions. There is a ripple effect because of the interconnectedness of the grid. That vulnerability is layered on to other disruptions from accidents and weather events.

The microgrid solution

Microgrids function like miniature electricity grids, and they can draw power from on-site or local sources.

One of the advantages is that microgrids can be insulated against disruptions in the wider grid. They can also potentially "black start," or come back online, quickly even if a widespread power outage continues to affect other parts of the grid.

On site or local renewable energy can potentially provide microgrids with a quick-recovery advantage, too.

Resiliency is just one aspect of microgrid technology, and Smith emphasizes that the that industry stakeholders are becoming more attuned to other bottom line advantages:

The resiliency aspects and capability arguments for microgrids are both wakeup calls for the industry. Microgrids offer a solution set that has peoples' attention.

Microgrids are a link between the monopoly model of conventional utilities and a more interactive, consumer driven platform.

They are a stepping stone, with viable technology that fills the gap. We are living in the Energy Age, and microgrids provide opportunities for consumer choice and consumption options, including pricing options.

There are also opportunities to network microgrids with other microgrids, and network microgrids with utilities.

There is at least one major challenge, though. Microgrids that are connected to each other and the larger gird need to be capable of going into "island" mode seamlessly, in order to insulate themselves in case of widespread disruptions including cyber attacks.

That sounds easy enough on a small scale, but on a national level with tens of thousands of microgrid connections the complications add up.

Where the microgrid rubber meets the Silicon Valley road

Another bottom line aspect of microgrids is their connection with "smart grid" technology. The microgrid itself is composed of hardware, of course, but emerging microgrid design is closely integrated with advanced IT capabilities.

Some of those capabilities relate to boosting the efficiency of daily operations, such as accessing cloud data. Smith also notes the potential for microgrids to enable "more dynamic conversations" between energy consumers and producers, which can foster the use of new IT developments like crypto-currency.

This software-driven aspect also includes elements that could aid in resiliency, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"It's a logical progression toward a self-healing system," says Smith.

The role of renewable energy

Smith cautions that utilities have legitimate reasons to be skittish about encouraging distributed renewable energy generation. Independently owned microgrids can compete with utilities for sales of kilowatt-hours, and the growing patchwork of small scale solar arrays and wind turbines can pose safety issues for utility crews. Safety is an especially acute issue where do-it-yourself, jury-rigged systems are involved.

Assuming that the regulatory ecosystem will adjust -- as it has for automobiles, buildings, and other major aspects of civic infrastructure -- Smith sees advantages for grid resilience in microgrids with DERs:

Renewables provide "black start" capabilities. When you have a solar panel on a house with storage, you can get back up and running.

In the chaos of post-Irma Florida, restoring order involves identifying live wires and tracking assets. Microgrids could help make it easier to understand where these assets are on a granular level.

The concept of grid service is also huge. Renewables have the ability to interact with consumers and their neighbors in the microgrid. That means they have the ability to provide services, and utilities are trying to valuate these services and make them accessible to more consumers.

Interestingly, the U.S. Energy Department has been pitching the idea of a DERs enabled, consumer-oriented grid. The agency calls it the "prosumer" concept, in contrast to the conventional consumer model:
Simply put, a prosumer is someone who both produces and consumes energy – a shift made possible, in part, due to the rise of new connected technologies and the steady increase of more renewable power like solar and wind onto our electric grid.

Think of it like a Facebook feed or YouTube page. Most users don’t just read or watch content – they also create their own and actively add to the conversation on social media.

The full value of DERs-enabled microgrids in disaster recovery has yet to be realized, but anecdotal evidence from Florida's hurricane recovery indicates that mini-microgrids -- aka homes with rooftop solar panels and energy storage -- can come back online within minutes even before the sun comes out again.

The Department of Defense is already testing the value of microgrids in providing energy security for domestic bases and overseas operations. Military veterans are beginning to re-enter civilian life with first-hand experience with renewables and are eager to promote them -- and work with them.

Emergency responders are also beginning to use electric emergency generators with portable DERs arrays instead of relying on diesel generators, which create local noise and pollution hazards and are encumbered by fuel supply issues.

The toll taken by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria on the conventional approach to electricity supply has been a cascade of worsening proportions, with Puerto Rico suffering an absolute calamity. As of this writing, the entire island is fully without power, and consequently water supplies are running thin.

Officials estimate that it will take six months to bring the grid back to life.

Image: US Department of Energy.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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