The value of microgrids when wicked weathering strikes

This article segment comes from ABB.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy walloped the Caribbean then combined with a Noreaster to knock out power to millions along the eastern coast of the United States. When superstorms like Sandy make landfall in major population centers such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, power outages can have a devastating impact on the local economy and people’s lives, and restoration can take weeks if not months.

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The concern over grid stability prompts the question: What if the microgrid contained a high penetration of renewables, creating fluctuations in power quality that extended to the main grid?

While the real cost of damages from Hurricane Sandy have yet to be fully understood, estimates already place it at around $50 billion – second to Hurricane Katrina as the most costly storm in United States history. If there’s a bright side to events like these, it is the wake-up call it provides to utilities, regulators, and communities, alerting them to the need to modernize the power grid to improve stability and reliability and harden it against natural and manmade disasters.
Microgrids: A key component of power reliability
Microgrids are small, self-sufficient power grids that serve a group of consumers such as a university campus, military base, or municipality. The microgrid can draw power from the main grid or it can operate in “island mode” where it neither draws power from the main grid nor supplies power to it. The microgrid concept is not new, but during the age of industrialization, centralized grids serving a large number of consumers from a primary power source made more economic sense. It simply wasn’t feasible for most municipalities, colleges, hospitals, or other entities to build their own power plant. While they might rely on power sources such as a diesel generator for mission critical needs during energy disruptions, these sources weren’t considered a cost-effective solution for everyday energy needs.

Likewise, utilities had no compelling motivation to invest in microgrid technologies. To them, the microgrid represented a potential loss of revenue when power was supplied from a local source. It also represented a potential expense since the utility would be responsible for the hardware, software, and communications technology required to connect the microgrid to the main grid.

Finally, there were concerns over grid stability.  What if the microgrid contained a high penetration of renewables, creating fluctuations in power quality that extended to the main grid?

A confluence of two trends has brought the concept of microgrids to the fore. First, Hurricane Sandy and other “superstorms” of the last decade have highlighted, in painful and expensive ways, the need to protect consumers from the devastation caused by such natural disasters. Second, the technology needed to make microgrids feasible for everyday use, such as that needed for power storage and stabilization, has reached a point where it is commercially viable and available.

Today, utilities and industry recognize the need to collaborate to make the microgrid a reality. When discussing microgrids, the customer is more than just the end consumer, the household or business that consumes power. Customers also include the political leaders, regulators, business executives, and others who serve the end-consumer.

It is often these intermediary “consumers” that initiate the microgrid discussion as they search for ways to ensure a reliable and safe supply of power to their constituencies. Reliability

The driving force for microgrids
The compelling impetus for the discussion is most often reliability. How can we ensure our community, place of business, or entity is insulated from an extended power outage in case of a natural (or manmade) disaster? The reliability benefits of the microgrid are clear. When the main grid loses power, the microgrid can switch to island mode. As long as there is an adequate source of power at the local level (diesel generator, wind turbine, fuel cell, PV, etc.), the power continues to flow while the rest of the community is enveloped in darkness. Of course, mission critical resources such as hospitals have maintained their own backup power source for years. The modern concept of a microgrid simply takes that idea to a larger group of consumers and makes it more feasible for everyday use.

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