When we look at who supplies our electricity, we think of local utilities. Puget Sound Energy, Avista, Pacific Power and a host of other companies and PUDs supply power to consumers and companies around Washington state.
However, factors such as more frequent power outages and a desire for energy independence and community resilience are causing a desire for more reliability. The US Department of Energy (DoE) said natural disasters and physical or cyber-attacks threaten the grid’s ability to provide power, which inconveniences customers in some cases and can cut people off from critical services. For example, attention-grabbing headlines in several newspapers last week (e.g., NY Times) warned that, according to a recent study, 800,000 Phoenix residents could require emergency care and 12,000 could die in the event that an extended power failure happened during a heat wave. Throughout the country, the grid is being challenged by ever rising energy consumption and ageing infrastructure. Moreover, some remote rural communities do not have ready access to electricity from utilities or want an alternative.
Communities, companies and government agencies are increasingly looking at installing microgrids to achieve their goals.
Microgrids Offer Independence
Microgrids are self-contained electricity grids that use renewable energy or generators to produce electricity and that store energy in batteries. Microgrids can complement utilities or operate independently. The combination of electricity production, controls and energy storage creates an independent and integrated power system.
As the DoE noted, microgrids provide a solution via localized grids that can operate autonomously, whether they are disconnected from the traditional grid or operate to support remote or isolated communities. By 2035, DoE aims for microgrids to “represent essential building blocks of the future electricity delivery system to support resilience, decarbonization, and affordability.”
When they use clean energy to produce electricity, microgrids can also reduce emissions and pollution. While many microgrids used diesel-powered generators in the past, more are turning to solar, wind or other renewable energy sources. Along with reducing emissions, solar or wind energy can eliminate reliance on transporting fossil fuels long distances and can decrease the cost of electricity compared to diesel or other sources of power.
The Rationale for a Microgrid
Microgrids deliver a multitude of benefits for any organization that uses them, including backup power, lower energy costs, improved sustainability and a stronger grid.
For companies in particular, microgrids can reduce greenhouse emissions, enhance energy resilience, and improve the bottom line, according to Greenbiz. Three factors stand out. First, upcoming SEC climate disclosure rules may require businesses to create a risk mitigation plan , which brings resilience and electrification to the forefront. Second, the European Union is about to implement a Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which requires certain large US-based enterprises operating in the EU to report sustainability metrics. Exporters may suffer if they do not make changes. Finally, energy cost optimization is a major driver because users can leverage storage to avoid peak energy charges or can produce less expensive power using renewable sources. Incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act for microgrids make them even more financially attractive.
One key example of the shift to microgrids is the US Department of Defense (DoD). The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act calls on the DoD to “promote installing microgrids to ensure the energy security and energy resilience of critical missions.” DoD has realized that US bases must be self-sufficient to endure extreme weather events, energy market volatility and threats from adversary attacks. The 2022 National Defense Strategy increased the urgency.
According to Politico, the US Army said in 2021 that it wants to build a “microgrid” at every base around the world by 2035 . The US Navy and Marine Corps followed in 2022, saying they plan to build cybersecure microgrids at critical military facilities as part of a climate strategy that protects the flow of electricity during disasters while also decarbonizing its energy supply.
Innovative Technology Optimizes Microgrids
While microgrids have been around for decades, innovative technology is vastly improving their performance.
The microgrid industry is innovating at an exciting clip, said Elise Wood, with solutions including transactive energy, artificial intelligence (AI), more sophisticated controllers, extracting greater value from the grid connection and new fuels such as hydrogen . Algorithms and machine learning enable real-time adjustments to energy distribution and storage, which can optimize energy use and balance demand while ensuring stable power delivery to consumers.
For microgrids in remote areas, traditional methods of manual inspection, monitoring, and maintenance are costly and time-consuming. To address these issues, StartUs Insights said, startups are developing remote monitoring solutions that provide real-time data and analytics to detect potential issues and optimize performance. Sensors and algorithms enable preventative maintenance and fault detection, reduce the risk of downtime and improve reliability.
Telecoms operator Orange said usage of blockchain is also enabling new capabilities such as secure and transparent recording and storage of energy and transaction flows. It can be used to track energy consumption in real time, facilitate energy certification and auditing, and support billing and paying consumers.
Case Studies in Washington State
While they may not have garnered vast attention in Washington, more microgrids have been installed recently around the state.
In 2022, for instance, Snohomish County PUD opened a microgrid at the Arlington Microgrid and Clean Energy Center. It combines a 500kW solar array with a battery energy storage system. The project supports disaster recovery, grid resiliency and electric vehicle integration. (Solar in Action, July 1, 2022)
In Spokane, Avista Energy is partnering with Washington State University in the nation’s largest smart grid demonstration project to create the first “smart community” in the Pacific Northwest. Rooftop solar panels and battery storage units installed on two buildings could be connected to a building energy management system automatically senses which building needs power and which building has sufficient power to share its solar or stored battery power.
On the Tulalip Reservation, Washington State University students have designed a microgrid for an administration building. The project is a collaboration between the Snohomish PUD and the Tulalip Tribes, which are working to reach energy independence. The goals for the microgrid include energy sovereignty, sustainability, resilience, education and increased energy resilience.
Very recently, the City of Seattle celebrated the completion of the Miller Community Center Microgrid on Earth Day 2023. The project, a collaboration between Seattle City Light and Seattle Parks and Recreation, was funded in part by a $1.5 million Clean Energy Fund grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce. The project included the installation of 132 solar panels on the Miller Community Center’s roof, which sends energy to a battery storage system and can provide backup power during emergency events such as a windstorm.
Microgrids will Continue to Thrive
The future for microgrids, in Washington state and beyond, is bright. Amidst threats ranging from climate change and cyber-attacks to ageing infrastructure, microgrids ensure users that the power stays on in a multitude of situations.