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Tina Casey headshot

"Self-Forming" Renewable Energy Microgrids For U.S. Army -- Puerto Rico Next?

By Tina Casey

Puerto Rico is still struggling to repair its outdated power grid weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. As a result, new attention is focusing on the advantages of renewable energy for disaster response and grid resiliency. Just a few years ago the renewable option would have seemed like a fantasy, but the reality is here and now.

The renewable energy response in Puerto Rico has been a scattershot effort, and the island's power problems continue to ripple out. However, some recent microgrid news from the U.S. Army indicates that In the future, renewables could be mobilized for large scale disaster response, quickly and efficiently.

Microgrids, renewable energy and the U.S. military

For those of you new to the topic, microgrids can have any number of iterations. Generally, "microgrid" refers to a local grid that draws energy from onsite or local sources. Typically, a microgrid is connected to the broader grid. In case of a power outage, the microgrid can disconnect and continue to operate independently.

In the past, microgrids typically depended on diesel generators to operate independently. Renewable energy and advanced energy storage now provide more sustainable options.

That increased range of options has caught the eye of the Department of Defense. The agency has a slew of microgrid, energy storage and renewable energy initiatives under way, in order to ensure energy security at its bases and overseas operations.

Today's advanced microgrids can be described as self-forming for a number of reasons. They can handle multiple sources at a time, switch seamlessly from one source to another, and automatically disengage from the broader grid when necessary.

Portable and transportable microgrids are a key area of interest, because they enable military operations -- including those in active war zones overseas -- to cut the grid cord and the diesel cord, too.

Aside from military purposes, the mobility factor also comes into play for disaster response and humanitarian relief.

What is Electricore?

So, here's where it gets interesting. The U.S. military's sustainable energy activities been percolating for many years. One notable development occurred back in 1993, when the non-profit consortium Electricore was established.

Electricore describes itself as "a unique consortium among private and public sector organizations, federal agencies, corporations, small businesses, universities, and research institutions" that solves technology problems by "building world-class teams and conducting ground breaking programs."

The driving force behind the creation of Electricore was the Defense Department's cutting edge funding agency, DARPA. The agency sought ways to accelerate technologies for electric vehicles and associated systems -- yes, back in the 1990's.

There were many glitches in the early years of vehicle electrification, but fast-forward to 2017 and Electricore can make this claim:

Today, many local municipalities have entire fleets of alternative power vehicles that were created through Electricore’s efforts.  The Electricore consortium efforts have also resulted in key technological breakthroughs that are directly responsible for the new commercial hybrid and battery electric vehicles being introduced to the marketplace today.  These breakthroughs are also penetrating the military and being used in new vehicle and other power generation programs to reduce battlefield fuel consumption. 

And, who is Go Electric?

With all this in mind, let's take a closer look at a couple of microgrid projects recently awarded by the Defense Department through Electricore.

One contract joins the company Go Electric with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Energy Research Lab. The aim is to develop a "portable, modular, self-forming microgrid solution" with renewable energy capabilities, which can withstand "harsh mobile applications."

Here's the rundown from Go Electric:

The system will provide supply-side energy management by integrating multiple energy sources - including engine-driven generators, renewable energy assets and host-nation/shore power with battery energy storage into a self-forming microgrid.

Although the system is still in development, it sounds ideal for getting power into rugged areas like parts of Puerto Rico.

It seems the Defense Department's interest in the technology is accelerating.

Among the other three contracts, another one involves the development of a microgrid supported by renewable energy, at Fort Custer in Michigan. This contract is funded through the Defense Department's Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, which focuses on demonstrating innovative technologies for eventual use in the field.

It's also worth noting that Go Electric is involved in the Defense Department's ongoing SPIDERS microgrid project, which includes a "high penetration" of renewables.

What about a solar future for Puerto Rico?

Interestingly, the U.S. Army already has -- or had -- a good start on a renewable energy future for Puerto Rico. The island's Fort Buchanan completed an on-base wind and solar project several years ago.

No word yet on the condition of the facility after Hurricane Maria. A number of solar arrays on the island apparently suffered serious damage, but others survived and were pumping out electricity shortly after the storm passed.

For example, reports that a rooftop solar installation at the VA Hospital in San Juan survived 180 mile-per-hour winds, thanks to an advanced anchoring system.

Although a solar -- and wind powered -- future is likely in store for Puerto Rico, that will be a long time coming.

In the meantime, troubles continue to mount for PREPA, the island's power authority. A massive new blackout hit the island last week, another blackout occurred this week, and PREPA continues to face fallout from its decision to award a no-bid grid repair contract to Whitefish Energy, a company with little experience and some interesting connections to the Trump Administration.

Image (screenshot): via Go Electric.

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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