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Weatherproofing Power: Microgrids Are Here to Stay

by Virginia Brooks, Brooks & Associates PR

On October 6, category five Hurricane Matthew made direct hits on Haiti, the Bahamas and Cuba, and then made its ascent along the southeastern seaboard of the United States.  By October 8, coastal Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas were awash in tidal surges, flooding and damaging winds with close to three million households without power.  In South Carolina alone, a full third of consumers lost power at the height of the storm.

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Three million customers along the U.S. southeastern seaboard were out of power at the height of Hurricane Matthew. (Credit: NASA)

Businesses, communities and utilities in the path of Matthew spent the days leading up to its landfall boarding up facilities and planning emergency evacuations.  There were, however, a growing number that went about assuring continuity of power and operations by activating microgrids designed to keep the lights on even when the public grid went down.

Microgrids are described by the International Council on Large Electric Systems (CIGRE) as “electricity distribution systems containing loads and distributed energy resources, (such as distributed generators, storage devices, or controllable loads) that can be operated in a controlled, coordinated way either while connected to the main power network or while is landed.”  They essentially are miniature power grids that use on-site resources like solar panels, batteries and backup generators to produce enough power to function independently from the main power grid.

One third of South Carolina’s customers experienced electricity outages caused by Hurricane Matthew. (Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration)
One third of South Carolina’s customers experienced electricity outages caused by Hurricane Matthew. (Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

In addition to their role in islanding power during grid interruptions, these distributed energy sources save fuel costs, reduce environmental impact and even bring about social change by providing electrification in previously unserved rural areas.

Microgrids have become big business. Small wonder when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates the economic impact of power-related outages in the U.S. at approximately $150 billion annually. European annual estimates come in at about 150 billion euros, according to GE.

A 2014 Frost & Sullivan study predicts a sharp rise in installations of microgrids worldwide between now and 2020. These will be driven by utilities, municipal governments, public power, energy management companies, independent power producers, municipal utilities and independent transmission utilities.  Similar findings in a new research report published at marketsandmarkets.com put the microgrid sector at $34.4 billion by 2022, a CAGR of 10.9 percent between 2016 and 2022.

IDC Research recently reported a recent California Energy Commission (CEC) grant award to San Diego Gas and Electric Company (SDG&E) of more than $4 million dollars to expand its microgrid in the 2,800-customer residential community of Borrego Springs, California. The goal of the project, according to Berkeley Labs, is to provide a proof of concept for how information technologies and distributed energy resources can increase utility asset utilization and reliability.

A Microgrid solution uses the same tools, techniques, and best practices used to secure larger utility grids. Advanced software solutions manage the grid assets and ensure that economic goals are met while meeting energy demand. (Credit: Siemens)
A Microgrid solution uses the same tools, techniques, and best practices used to secure larger utility grids. Advanced software solutions manage the grid assets and ensure that economic goals are met while meeting energy demand. (Credit: Siemens)

The project’s partners include Lockheed Martin, IBM, Advanced Energy Storage, Horizon Energy, Oracle, Motorola, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, and University of California San Diego. The U.S. DOE supported the project with $7.5 million of federal funding, with additional funding coming from SDG&E, CEC ($2.8 million), and other partners ($0.8 million).

According to IDC analyst Jill Feblowitz, “This is clearly a development that utilities around the country will want to follow to understand the economic and technical aspects of what could be a new business model for utilities.” IDC reports the Borrego Springs microgrid brings together on-site generation (diesel), regional renewable generation (solar), storage (sub-station, community and home), customer home energy management, micro-controllers and feeder automation, to orchestrate meeting demand.

Back on the East Coast, Atlanta-based Southern Company recently spent $425 million to acquire PowerSecure International Inc., a North Carolina supplier of advanced utility technologies.  PowerSecure focuses on microgrids, describing itself as a pioneer in developing what it calls interactive distributed generation power systems that deliver onsite power during high-cost peak-demand periods and protect business operations with backup power when grid power is interrupted.

Southern Company chairman, president and CEO Thomas A. Fanning announced the company’s plans to draw on PowerSecure’s expertise to develop innovative technologies “on the other side of the meter.”  PowerSecure reports it serves utilities and customers with more than 1,600 distributed power systems in operation across the United States – supporting industrial manufacturers, food processors, retailers, distribution facilities, data centers, hospitals, municipal facilities, military installations and landfills.  The acquisition will move Southern Company deeper into the microgrid sector.

Hurricane Matthew made landfall near Les Anglais, Haiti, where nonprofit EarthSpark International’s team, grid and customers were located and left behind widespread destruction. Fortunately, all of the EarthSpark team emerged safe and accounted for. The EarthSpark microgrid was damaged but fared comparatively well, with the generation system still largely intact and only 25% of the solar panels lost.

— By Virginia Brooks, Brooks & Associates Public Relations, Inc.