WHAT ARE MICROGRIDS AND HOW DO THEY WORK? [BY KYLE PENNEL OF POWERSCOUT INC.]
When people hear the term “microgrid,” especially regarding electrical disaster prevention or relief, it raises questions. Here’s a quick breakdown and overview of what a microgrid is, its purpose, and how they’re able to operate.
WHAT IS A MICROGRID?
Think about the vulnerability of the power grid being targeted. It’s the exact reason microgrids were sought-out as a preventative measure. They operate within their own grid independently, and can disconnect from the main grid at any point. Most grids work to create the same amount of energy that they consume, allowing for energy independence.
HOW DOES A MICROGRID WORK?
Before you can fully know how a microgrid works, we need to look at how the larger power grid works.
Starting at the most basic level, let’s look at the coffee pot in your kitchen. That connects to your outlet, which runs to your circuit breaker, which runs to the power line in the street. Those power lines don’t go where you’d expect. In a sense, they go back to a power plant, but in a much more intricate way. Power lines are connected to the grid: electrical lines that run from home to home, from power station to power station (to allow voltage changes), from power plant to power plant, creating a system. If one power plant stops producing enough energy, others will start to pick up the slack.
Microgrids are all of those things, but on a much smaller scale. Microgrids can run off of individual power plants, backup batteries, and most notably, solar energy (learn more at PowerScout.com about all things solar). If a microgrid is efficient enough, it may run indefinitely, nullifying the need for larger power grids.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF A MICROGRID?
Energy independence is a growing necessity not just for the United States, but every single first-world country across the globe. Especially here in the United States, there are a number of reasons that you would want to be located within an established microgrid:
Blackout Prevention: Unless a microgrid is struck directly (at which point, the major grid would kick into effect), you’ll retain power during a blackout. When you hear about millions being left in the dark, it’s unnerving. Affected areas could decrease if microgrids are put in place.
Cost Cutting: Electricity is expensive and taken for granted. It isn’t until a power outage occurs, or when someone opens an exponentially-high electricity bill that they truly remember how crucial and sparse electricity is. Running power from a microgrid means there’s less travel, quicker delivery, requiring less generation and expenses.
Emergency Use: Places like hospitals have their own backup generators for patients on life support and who require immediate medical care. Doctors and nurses can’t help their patients without electricity (in most cases). Whenever an emergency strikes, you lose access to crucial information like the news, heat in your home, and your food supply could diminish if the power is out for too long, causing perishables to spoil. Your microgrid, in an emergency, can be the difference between panic and tranquility.
HOW DO MICROGRIDS CONNECT TO LARGE POWER GRIDS?
Think about a laptop charger with an LED light. When you pull it out of the wall, most models will still run that light for about five seconds until it fades. With a microgrid, it’s just like disconnecting something from the wall, only, it continues to run without the superior power source.
Depending on how a microgrid operates, it can manually or automatically switch from the superior grid depending on the conditions. If the power goes out, without missing a beat, the microgrid stops relying on the superior grid and produces enough energy on its own.
HOW POWERFUL ARE MICROGRIDS?
There’s no consistent way to look at it. Microgrids are either going to operate efficiently, or fall flat and half-rely on a superior power grid. Most microgrids are still ongoing projects. Every microgrid is different, which is part of the point. Microgrids typically power small areas, keeping them sustained properly, depending on the amount of energy being used. They can also be used to power larger areas, though at some point, large microgrids become redundant.
MICROGRIDS CAN GENERATE REVENUE AND CREATE JOBS
There’s a never ending need for electricity. We consume it daily, and it’s constantly creating jobs in the energy sector. Every nation on Earth, including America, is consistently growing. The economy needs a steady supply of job growth, coinciding with our need for more and more energy.
Microgrids aren’t a simple fix. It’s not as easy as connecting a few wires and being done with it. With all the work it requires, it stimulates job growth while promoting energy independence. It’s a win-win all around.
WHAT ARE THE FUTURE OF MICROGRIDS?
Since microgrids are local projects for local growth, they’re on state and town levels of government and planning. Ideally, microgrids would grow at a quick rate and provide energy independence for most of America in the next ten years or so.
Ironically, a lot of experts believe we’ll be seeing microgrids in their own system (a larger grid, but made up of independent grids). We’ll see where that leads in terms of energy independence and reliability.
OTHER SOURCES ON MICROGRIDS FROM OUR BLOG:
How distributed energy and renewables work efficiently » here
Demystifying microgrids » here
How microgrids are shaping their future » here