A recent survey of 2,000 U.S. voters by the Civil Society Institute found that most had never heard of the term microgrid, or they had heard of it but had the wrong impression. But when microgrids were explained to them, they showed a strong predisposition to the concept.
“Once people understand microgrids, they see the importance of them in their community,” said Andrea Camp, senior project manager at the institute, a nonprofit public policy think tank.
Although microgrids have existed since the electric grid emerged over a century ago, the technology started regaining traction following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Today, microgrids are viewed as a key component of the emerging smart grid, as well as the “smart campus” vision as defined by Siemens in their new Campus of the Future report. Navigant Research, a Guidehouse company, forecasts 10-fold growth for the microgrid industry from 2019-2028.
So, what is a microgrid, and why is this technology becoming an important part of the U.S. energy landscape?
A microgrid is a self-sufficient energy system that runs 24/7/365 and serves a discrete footprint, such as a college campus, hospital complex, business center or neighborhood. In a sense, a microgrid is the electric grid in a compact form because it generally contains the same basic elements: generators to produce energy, a means to distribute the energy, a means to control the energy supply and demand, and customers who use the power. Contemporary microgrids also often include energy storage systems, typically batteries, to help balance and optimize supply and load while providing backup supply capacity. And, microgrids have begun to incorporate electric vehicle charging stations, thus connecting the distributed electricity supply grid to a cleaner transportation fleet.
Intelligent control of your energy assets and use
But a microgrid is more than a mere grouping of energy assets. What sets a microgrid apart is its microgrid controller, the brain of the operation. This is a relatively inexpensive software-driven system that gives the microgrid the ability to undertake various beneficial functions, among them islanding from the central grid. If a power outage occurs on the grid, the controller signals the microgrid to separate from the grid to avoid the disruption. Its generation and storage systems ramp up as needed to become sole providers of power to the buildings the microgrid serves. Islanding can be designed to occur so seamlessly that those within the building are unaware that they are no longer on grid power but are being served by the microgrid controller and associated local generation assets.