Ever Heard of Microgrids? They’re Awesome—Here’s Why

July 2, 2018 | 10:45 am
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

For most of us, when the power fails, the lights stay out until the grid gets fixed. Regardless of personal cost, or degree of inconvenience, or magnitude of disaster looming close behind, only the utility can re-flip that switch.

Power out, and powerless.

That is astounding.

In so many areas of our lives, we trust systems, but also make backup plans. Banks plus sock drawers, grocery stores plus canned goods, water taps plus gallons in the back; we belt-and-suspender proudly, mitigating risks on the daily.

Yet not so for electricity. When it comes to the grid, the vast majority of us solely rely upon a massive centralized system, which means we benefit from economies of scale when it works, and stagger under catastrophes of fail when it doesn’t.

Shouldn’t there be a backup plan?

Well for a growing number of people, there is.

As my colleagues and I detail in a new interactive map, more and more communities are turning to microgrids to buttress their electricity needs, enabling them to keep the power on even if the grid shuts off.

Here, a pathway to resilience: power to the people, by the people, starting from the ground up.

Why microgrids?

The devastating consequences of severe power outages have been achingly front of mind as of late. An upright world, suddenly toppled over into upheaval everywhere.

Utilities are working on ways to help the grid better handle severe storms. Credit: dakine kane/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Given our increasingly electrified day-to-day, power outages are threatening to result in costs that we just can’t afford to pay.

As a result, there’s been heightened attention on how to do better—how to keep the power on, instead of shutting off.

But that discussion has been focused nearly exclusively on the grid. On the power plants feeding it, and the types of fuel that’s feeding them. On the wires strung high above, and the pipelines buried deep below. On the trees and wind and fires and flood that knock and knock and knock.

Which is all critically important work, and something we invest a lot of time in ourselves. But the truth is, no matter how good we make the grid, the power will still go out. Less frequently, and for far shorter amounts of time, but still it will blink off. Why? Because the world’s largest machine isn’t too big to fail—it’s simply too big not to.

Thus, a conundrum: We know we can’t afford to fail, and we know that still we will. Something’s got to give.

Enter microgrids.

Microgrids are…

A power system in miniature.

They can be teeny tiny micro small, held in the space of just one hand, or they can really stretch that micro moniker far, linking whole campuses and communities as one.

Microgrids come in two main forms:

  • Islanded microgrids are fully untethered from the grid. For these systems, every day is Microgrid Day, supporting everything from pumps in pastures to highway road signs, emergency response units to whole towns unto themselves.
  • Islandable microgrids, on the other hand, are systems connected to the broader grid that can also run alone. These microgrids hum along in harmony—until the lights go out. Then, a spot of light in a sea of dark as the system shuts the failure out and solely self-supplies.

And about that supply. Here’s where the real promise begins. Because although any type of resource works, the diesel generators many have long turned to leave a lot to be desired. In addition to spewing out health-harming pollutants, they also require reliable access to fuel in the midst of surrounding disaster. What’s more, because they’re so infrequently used, they’re often prone to failure in the exact moment they’re needed most.

Students check out solar panels as part of Florida’s SunSmart E-Shelter Program. Credit: Florida Solar Energy Center.

Solar-plus-storage, on the other hand, shines brilliantly bright as the face of many future systems, cleanly and reliably and affordably bringing power to the people. And, not just when the power goes out. Indeed, these systems can actually save communities money in the many, many hours when they’re not in island mode by generating electricity and lowering bills all throughout the year.

Sure do sound like some sharp-looking suspenders to me.

But jump to take a look, and be the judge yourself!

Micro grids, mammoth potential

We recently put together the map above, highlighting microgrid stories from all across the country. We want to illustrate just a few of the ways in which microgrids have—and increasingly will—serve to bring power back to the people.

You should zoom around and explore for yourself, but here, a few quick highlights from the route: a pioneering island in Alaska; a policy in Massachusetts that looks forward, not back; a grocery chain in Texas that elicits tears of joy; and a new form of disaster response that’s powered by the sun.

And our map just scratches the surface.

Microgrids are supporting military installations and first responders, schools and hospitals, emergency shelters and wastewater treatment plants.

They keep gasoline stations pumping along evacuation routes, and experiments running in labs.

They serve individuals, they serve critical facilities, they serve communities.

And, what’s more, they have the potential to be serving many, many more. As the costs of renewables and energy storage keep plummeting, the ever more accessible these benefits-generating, resilience-boosting, risk-mitigating win-win-win solutions will be.

Our nation’s electricity grid is an incredible resource, and one we all benefit from keeping in the very best of shape.

But we don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket. There are some services, some people, some needs that simply cannot allow for electricity access to be left to chance. Especially because we don’t have to.

Microgrids are here and ready to help. Let’s make sure that when the lights go out, every community has the chance to flip that switch themselves.