The United States is by far the world’s leader on microgrids. The nation now accounts for nearly two-thirds, or 62%, of global microgrid capacity that’s either planned or operational. The number of microgrids worldwide has increased from about 400 early last year to about 600 now, nearly half of which are in the U.S.
In a major feature USA Today puts the boot into Utility company failure to keep the lights on. Hurricane Sandy, along with other recent extreme weather events, “exposed the growing unreliability of the nation’s aging and “Balkanized” power grid,” said the paper.
Just one year after Sandy turned out the lights on 8.5 million Americans, there’s been a proliferation of generators, fuel cells, solar panels paired with batteries, and combined heat and power technologies. These varying microgrids aim to make the main grid more “resilient” — energy’s 2013 buzzword.
Many of these mini networks produce power onsite and store it for emergencies. They operate independently of the nation’s electrical grid, which distributes power from coal, natural gas or nuclear plants, so they can keep the lights on when a storm brings down the grid.
“Sandy was a game changer,” says Tom Leyden, CEO of Solar Grid Storage, a company that develops battery systems to store solar power, which fluctuates throughout the day. He says the massive storm — along with lower solar prices, better batteries and rising climate change concerns — has amplified the need for storing renewable energy that is starting to transform the utility industry.
On Oct. 17, California became the first U.S. state to require utilities to maintain a certain amount of energy storage. In July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order to urge that utilities pay microgrids higher prices for backup power they can quickly provide the main grid.
“There’s more attention to grid reliability,” says Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew Charitable Trusts’ Clean Energy Program, adding Sandy also showed how decades-old technologies such as combined heat and power (CHP) can save the day. She says New York University and Long Island’s South Oaks Hospital didn’t go dark after Sandy, because their CHP systems — also known as co-generation — don’t draw electricity from the grid but rather generate it onsite by reusing energy that’s normally wasted in power generation.
While most are tied into the grid and can bolster its efficiency, some microgrids operate completely on their own. Off-grid homes with rooftop solar panels, or those with backup generators, are essentially “nano” grids.
Microgrids — once used mostly by colleges and hospitals — are now expanding to other facilities as the U.S. Department of Defense, businesses and local governments work to avoid the risks posed by extreme weather, expected to intensify with climate change-related power risks.
More than 50 U.S. military bases now operate, plan or are testing microgrids.
Connecticut, spurred by Hurricane Irene in 2011, passed a law last year to launch the first statewide microgrid program, which aims to ensure continuous power for town centers and other critical facilities.
“Microgrids play a major role in our efforts to modernize and harden our infrastructure to withstand severe weather,” Connecticut’s Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said in July as he announced the program’s nine pilot projects in eight cities. The projects will use CHP systems, natural gas turbines, fuel cells and solar panels — some in combination.
In the last month alone, the governors of New York and New Jersey have also announced additional funding for microgrid projects in their states, both of which were pummeled by Sandy.
In August, the Department of Energy said it’s partnering with New Jersey to develop the first microgrid for a U.S. transit system. They’re calling it “NJ TransitGrid” and enlisting the expertise of DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories, which has designed advanced microgrids already in use at more than 20 U.S. military bases.
“I think it’ll be a model for the country,” N.J. GOP Gov. Chris Christie said at the announcement event in Secaucus, N.J., attended by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
DOD and DOE are trying to standardize technologies for microgrids, and they’re working with companies including SAIC, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric. In August, San Diego-based Power Analytics announced it will install at naval facilities in San Diego County its software that manages microgrids by targeting how best to use backup power when a storm approaches.
The private sector is also embracing microgrids. Earlier this month, CenturyLink said it will install Bloom Energy fuel cells at one of its data centers in Irvine, Calif., to generate enough of its own power to protect critical loads from outages. In September, Maryland developer Konterra installed a solar microgrid project at its headquarters in Laurel, Md.
Despite the big push for microgrids, obstacles remain. Some states, including New York, have regulations that don’t specify what they are so their legal status is unclear. Also, federal tax incentives for some technologies ideal for microgrids, including CHP, are expiring at the end of 2016.
“Any transformation takes time,” Leyden says about bumps in the road. “That’s what we’re experiencing.”
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