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How microgrids could facilitate a national grid overhaul

Woman cruises around her Oceanside home that has enough solar collectors on the roof to charge her wheelchair, her electric car and run all the household appliances.
Cassina Tarsia outside her home, in Oceanside, California, which she installed with a microgrid, on April 28, 2014. Photo: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Much of the United States' energy infrastructure is archaic and unreliable. Severe weather is the primary cause of power loss, with numerous areas suffering multi-day outages last winter. The need for improved infrastructure in response to climate change was highlighted in a 2013 White House report and persists today.

What's next: Daunting and expensive as it would be, a national overhaul of the grid is sorely needed. Microgrids could play a significant role, as they offer a promising way to provide stable, green and cost-efficient energy.

Microgrids integrate grid power with multiple types of electrical energy sources, particularly renewables (e.g., solar and wind) and storage, alongside cleaner fossil fuel–based generators that when blended provide more environmentally friendly power.

The controls of the microgrid assure the reliability of the power system through combined load and source management, taking advantage of green and inexpensive generation when available. Additionally, they allow for the creation of new infrastructure by deploying standalone “island grids” and simplify infrastructure updates in areas struggling with outdated, inflexible systems.

Microgrids offer an array of benefits:

  1. Improved resilience, sustainability and cost efficiency of energy delivery
  2. Three distinct modes of operation: grid-tied, island (relying on local power) and a transitional mode between those two
  3. Energy flexibility, maintained by managing both locally and grid-produced energy, controlling loads in time of use, and allowing users to independently determine when best to produce or to use their energy, with the help of storage systems

The bottom line: Building microgrids that attach to the central grid would allow microgrid participants to leverage their energy sources during emergencies while also improving the overall health of our environment through increased market penetration of renewables.

Andy Haun is SVP and CTO of microgrid business at Schneider Electric.