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Electrifying Microgrids

These enclosed networks are changing the face of electricity delivery.

When the nation's capitol recently went dark - right in the middle of Cherry Blossom season - the lights went on in the halls of energy firms. It's about changing the face of the American grid - to reduce society's dependence on its interconnectivity and to, instead, encircle campuses or important buildings with enclosed systems, or micro-grids.

Centralized networks were designed a century ago as the most efficient way to generate and deliver electricity to the masses. While they will remain paramount to the distribution of electricity, the reality is that it is politically difficult to expand them. Even more significantly, businesses that cannot afford even a momentary disruption in power must look to new technologies that include distributed generation and micro-grids.

Distributed generation, or onsite generation, is power that is generated on location. Example: rooftop solar panels, whose growth is encouraged by renewable portfolio standards, tax credits and falling prices. Micro-grids are systems set up to power specific locations - not whole communities but localized areas.

"The opposition to new transmission is fifty-fold," when compared to natural gas pipelines, says Garry Brown, former utility commissioner at the New York Public Service Commission, during Public Utility Fortnightly's disruptive technologies conference in Washington, DC. "Reliability is not an option," something he says was brought home by Super Storm Sandy.

To this end, a New York initiative is focused on increasing the use of distributed energy, micro-grids and energy storage. In the words of the New York Power Authority, the aim is to "fundamentally transform" how energy is generated and distributed in the state.

As for the blackout in Washington, DC, widespread outages hit the city in early April - all caused by an explosion at a power plant located in suburban Maryland. Among the government buildings that were without power - for just a few minutes - were the White House and the Department of State.

"The scariest thing about Sandy was that 50 percent of the stand alone backup generation failed," says Terry Boston, chief executive of the PJM Interconnection that schedules power and manages the grid in a 13-state region.

"Micro-grids are key," he told the Fortnightly. In the case of Washington's blackout, "Important buildings came right back up" and within 7 minutes.

Micro-grids are getting the attention of utilities, not as potential threats but as a possible complement to their business models. It's all part of their smart grid layout, which seeks to add security, reduce emissions and minimize costs.

In a story for the Fortnightly magazine called Microgrids: Friend or Foe, Peter Asmus of Navigant Consulting says that 80-90 percent of grid failures start at the distribution level. Those outages cost the US economy $336 billion between 2003 and 2012. Micro-grids, he adds, are addressing this issue.

He points to Central Hudson Gas & Electric, which plans to build, own and operator micro-grids for customers. Other utilities are also entering that space and include Duke Energy, DTE Energy Co., San Diego Gas & Electric, Oncor Electric Delivery and Southern California Edison.

"It is not fair to say that utilities are slow to market," says Sharon Allen, chief executive of Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, at the Fortnightly's conference. "It is happening whether one wants to sit on the sidelines or not."

"Utilities now have an opportunity to take a leadership role," adds Stan Blazeewicz, with the National Grid. "We can drive economic growth. We can grow our economies on a local basis."

Take Alcatraz, the infamous prison that is now an historical site: Its power plant had been hugely inefficient, emitting more carbon emissions than just about any entity in Northern California while it had also been costly to run.

The government wanted to change how the site was fueled and charged and thus turned in 2011 to New Jersey-based Princeton Power Systems, which set up a micro-grid. The site is now energy efficient with power available 24/7, says Darren Hammel, co-founder of the technology provider, who spoke at the conference.

While the primary use of those networks had been to create electrical barricades to prevent outages from spreading like wildfires across the grid, many businesses "are now using them all the time - not just as islands in times of crisis," adds Dan Delurey, chief executive of the Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid. That includes hospitals, chip makers, and other customers, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, which need a constant flow of power.

Advances in technology are allowing for the expansion of micro-grids, all to accommodate businesses and governments that are driven to increase reliability, cut emissions and reduce costs - dynamics that are luring utilities and others into the fold. Micro-grids, if successful, will protect against hurricanes and earthquakes while changing the face of electricity delivery.


© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Romas