The microgrid vision is slowly becoming reality

Posted Sep 22, 2017 by Karen Graham
It's funny how small things often become appealing to a large audience. Take the iPhone, for example. When it was first introduced, most analysts said it would flop, yet it went on to redefine markets. The same could be said of microgrids.
A microgrid array consisting of 5 328 solar panels powers Ta u Island in American Samoa.
A microgrid array consisting of 5,328 solar panels powers Ta'u Island in American Samoa.
Elisa Wood, writing for Microgrid Knowledge notes that both microgrids and iPhones have a number of similarities. Both are small, yet capable of doing a lot. She writes, "just as an iPhone is a phone but more, a microgrid is a power generator but more."
And just as an iPhone would be nothing without the Internet, a microgrid is nothing without its connection to a larger, centralized grid network. However, despite this, a microgrid gives us a sense of safety. It keeps the lights on and even adds a bit of security as a stand-alone power provider.
However, when everything is working fine, the microgrid is connected to the larger electrical grid, allowing the customer to receive a number of benefits like savings on their electric bills. And as Wood points out, while most customers may not understand how a microgrid works, they are "cool with the name." And that "coolness" has become a marketing factor.
Satellite imagery of 2003 blackout.
Satellite imagery of 2003 blackout.
NASA Earth Observatory
The 2003 Blackout fuels innovation in the grid
The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was a massive power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and the Canadian province of Ontario on Thursday, August 14, 2003. According to official reports, 508 generating units at 265 power plants were shut down and it took almost two weeks to restore all the power.
The primary cause of the blackout was a programming error or "bug" in the alarm system. With the alarm system down, operators on the grid had no way to know when to redistribute power after overloaded transmission lines hit unpruned foliage, triggering a "race condition" in the energy management system software. Instead, what would have been a local, manageable event turned into a massive disaster.
The 2003 blackout proved to be a wake-up call to utilities and consumers, alike. And when concerns over climate change, a growing population and a growing shortage of natural resources were added, the energy sector was forced to look at pursuing a more intelligent electrical grid.
Investments in energy efficiency, renewable generation and power monitoring and control systems increased, but this often resulting in a diverse and disparate array of installed technologies.
However, as the renewables revolution has taken hold, more and more businesses and corporations have become very influential in spurring innovation and new technologies that are making the country's electrical grid "smarter," and at the same time, helping to grow the public's interest in microgrids.
Microgrids are localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously...
Microgrids are localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously and help mitigate grid disturbances to strengthen grid resilience.
U.S. Department of Energy
What is a microgrid, anyway?
Basically, a microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate all by itself. A microgrid can use renewable sources, conventional electrical power or be a storage source. They are primarily used as a reliable, affordable energy security source for commercial, industrial and federal government consumers.
According to a Siemens White Paper, "the core of a microgrid will be one or more small (under 50 MW) conventional generation assets (e.g. engines or turbines) fueled by natural gas, biomass or landfill methane. When they are connected to the main power grid, the use a mix of power generation sources depending on the metric to be optimized (cost, GHG, reliability)."
Specialized hardware and software systems control the integration and management of the microgrid’s components and the connection to the utility. A switch can separate the microgrid from the main grid automatically or manually, and it then functions as an island.
The recent epidemic of cyberattacks has led to greater investment and spending on security  but fear...
The recent epidemic of cyberattacks has led to greater investment and spending on security, but fears are rising that hackers are gaining the upper hand, a study showed
Thomas Samson, AFP/File
With microgrid systems in place. when part of the grid suffers a problem requiring repair, just that small part of the grid needs to be shut down, and not all customers are affected. All this is part of the move toward smart grid technology. A microgrid not only provides backup for the grid in case of emergencies but can also be used to cut costs or connect to a local resource that is too small or unreliable for traditional grid use.
What's driving the microgrid market?
Besides already finding out how outdated the nation's electrical grid really is, after all the flooding in Houston and Florida, there are other factors driving the microgrid market. One of the biggest is the threat of cyber attacks to our energy infrastructure.
Our modern communication technology systems are increasingly using wireless, cloud computing power systems, and other technologies, making them vulnerable to cyber attacks and hackers. Threats of this nature, along with growing energy demand and the evolution of electric vehicles all make for the need to have a safe and secure grid where isolated events can be corralled into just one area and corrected.