Are Microgrids the Future of Energy Management?
Updated: Mar 24
Have you ever experienced a massive power outage? Left wondering what causes so many people to be in the dark?
Regardless of the cause of the blackout, there may be a solution - microgrids.
In the United States, electricity is generally delivered via centralized energy systems. As a power plant generates electricity - from renewable or nonrenewable sources - it sends power over a limited number of lines that reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of consumers. When something happens to one of the lines - or the power plant itself - everyone in that network is suddenly in the dark.
A microgrid provides an alternative to large-scale power distribution. As the name implies, a microgrid is just that - a localized energy source that provides power to individual houses, neighborhoods, or perhaps to emergency services or a factory that can’t easily afford to lose power.
A microgrid can be powered by a generator or by solar panels on the roof of a house (also known as a nanogrid).
It may be as small as the solar charger you have for your phone - a picogrid, perhaps.
When it comes to larger energy distribution however, microgrids are relatively uncommon. Some microgrids intertwined in the current energy infrastructure in the United States do stand alone in the event of an outage. They may power hospitals or other essential buildings, but really just function as part of the larger system.
Existing microgrids rarely derive energy from a renewable source. Generators usually use diesel fuel and only spring into action when the larger system goes down.
Efforts towards a wider application of microgrids remain limited. Umair Irfan, reporter for Vox, explains in the below helpful YouTube video how the United States military has installed free-standing, island-like microgrids on military bases and in other areas to mitigate unreliable centralized power.
Comparable systems exist in New York City. New York University has microgrids on its campus, ones that kept the institution powered-up during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 while much of Manhattan lost power.
The advantages of microgrids seem clear. By developing local electricity distribution centers, large blackouts can be avoided. Power doesn’t have to travel as far, vulnerabilities and exposures are significantly lessened, and fewer individuals feel the effects when the power does fail.
There are still more benefits. Microgrids powered by distributed energy resources, or DERs, very literally function “off the grid.” DERs include renewables like solar panels and wind energy, both of which provide independent, unmetered power.
The idea that microgrids can supplement existing power is appealing. That they can replace it has merit as well.
With power outages becoming increasingly problematic in states like California, many utility companies seek to improve grid reliability and resilience, even adding greener technologies into the mix. As microgrid research and technologies continue to expand, they may ultimately offer the cleaner, cost-effective power that consumers want and demand.