An Explanation of Microgrids for the Rest of Us

September 30, 2015

If you’re reading this right now, you’re seeing words on a screen—a monitor, notebook, tablet, or maybe a phone. The electricity powering your device came conveniently from an outlet connected to wires that make their way through the walls of your home or office to a transformer on a pole, where higher voltage wires run to a distribution center.

Then even higher voltage wires connect that distribution center to a power plant even farther away where, in most cases, coal, diesel, or natural gas is used to create electricity.

This complicated and massive network is called the power grid, and in the United States, it’s been called the largest machine in the world (we’ll refer to it here as the traditional Grid, main Grid, or just The Grid).wiresThe Grid is how we’ve reliably gotten power in our homes and businesses for almost a century and we usually don’t think much of it. It works. But if you’ve been without power for any period of time, you know just how essential and fragile this seemingly powerful network can be. But there’s a different kind of grid that many companies, cities, and people are putting their money behind—a Microgrid—and it’s an intriguing solution to the aging power infrastructure that has remained largely unchanged since the early 1900s.

What a Microgrid Is
Microgrids are self-contained systems that offer a cleaner and more reliable way to generate, distribute, and consume power. And we’re seeing more and more of them.

To break them down at their most basic level, Microgrids are small networks of power generation components (the things that produce energy, like solar panels, wind turbines, generators etc.) and distribution components (the things that get energy to end users, like poles and wires). They often incorporate renewable energy technology, but not always.

They can operate autonomously or hand-in-hand with a larger electrical grid to produce reliable power. In its most complex form, a Microgrid should be capable of operating as part of a broader grid or separately, in parallel with the grid.

Because they can create power completely independent of the traditional Grid, Microgrids are becoming increasingly popular in remote locations that don’t typically have access to the traditional Grid. They are also being added to smaller geographic areas, like hospitals, military bases, and other essential facilities that need access to power in times of crisis or natural disasters. Microgrids are not new, but we are seeing more of them because they offer a sustainable, reliable energy solution.
Why Microgrids Matter
The time is ripe for a new type of power grid. The traditional Grid is old and vulnerable. If the wind blows hard or a tree falls and breaks a single power line, hundreds or even thousands of customers could lose power because so many lines are connected. When you add in the growing need for power from a rapidly expanding and increasingly tech-reliant world population, it’s pretty clear to see that we need a different way to make sure we can keep the power flowing. Microgrids may be the answer.

Keeping It Local
The beauty of Microgrids is that they generate power close to where it’s consumed. That eliminates the huge loss of power that occurs during transmission via miles and miles of wires on the traditional Grid and the costly transportation of so much fuel. And since Microgrids are controlled by sophisticated software systems and tools that adapt to usage and demand, they can optimize the distribution of resources in real-time, eliminating the use of so much guesswork about who needs power and where.


Keeping Things Clean
Because they are smaller and more self-sufficient than the traditional Grid, Microgrids can more easily incorporate renewables into power generation. In other words, Microgrids are great at using a diverse mix of wind, solar, geothermal, and traditional fuels to create power for the end user.windblade

Keeping the Lights On
Microgrids have proven themselves more reliable and resilient than the traditional Grid. Microgrids can be connected to the main Grid, supplying it with much needed power during surges, but can detach themselves from the main Grid in times of trouble and use their own power to keep the lights on.

The Future of Microgrids
Microgrids are currently being developed that would rely primarily on renewable fuel sources, like wind and solar, and turn to traditional sources only when absolutely necessary. Advancements in batteries, storage systems, software and solar panels are making smaller and cheaper Microgrids a reality. There’s also more investment from larger power companies and more organizations devoting themselves to making Microgrids accessible.

As Microgrids evolve, we’ll see remote villages in developing countries use their Microgrids to harness, store, and use power from the wind and the sun and use a lot less diesel fuel. We’ll see small communities (maybe even neighborhoods and individual homes) take advantage of Microgrids to save money and ensure a reliable source of clean power. We’ll see nationwide networks of Microgrids that talk to each other and help each other. Instead of one massive, vulnerable Grid, hundreds of interconnected Microgrids will generate and store their own power. So when there’s a surge or outage in one Microgrid, the system automatically shifts power somewhere else. Everything supports everything else. And it’s dominated by clean, renewable energy sources that are locally produced.

It’s a happy vision and one that’s not too far down the road. Microgrids may not be the panacea to the world’s energy needs, but it’s certainly a fascinating start.