A Diverse Future for Microgrid Tech

As a new journalist in the microgrid space, I can make few claims regarding the chemistry of solid-state batteries or the response rates of high-speed grid controllers. What I can say with relative confidence (advanced mechanics aside) is that the renewable energy economy will be far more diverse than the fossil capital it replaces. Novel power sources and delivery methods are entering the fore as sustainable industries develop. Maybe, over the coming century, grid construction and energy storage will streamline, maturing into a predictable landscape. For now, there are numerous approaches to low-carbon energy, stemming both from public investment and private innovation. The market resembles a classic “wild west,” with the helpful guidance—or necessary constraints—of governmental regulations and strong ethics standards. 

I attended the conference “Microgrids as Sustainability Heroes” on Tuesday May 25. Hosted by Jacqueline DeRosa, VP of Ameresco, the hour-long presentation served as a digital showcase for the latest developments in energy storage. Norm Campbell began the conference with a brief overview of Go Electric’s proprietary microgrid tech. A Federal Team Manager at Go Electric, Campbell has a BS in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame. Go Electric’s approach to microgrid storage borrows from a very familiar platform: vehicle powertrains. The union of these technologies—personal vehicle architectures and renewable microgrids—might seem random, but Norm argued that powertrains enable split-second energy responses. Essentially, this is a conversation about scale. On a traditional macrogrid, minor fluctuations in energy loads are statistically insignificant. Yet, since microgrids enable modular and decentralized power generation, the technology must cater to smaller use-cases. Go Electric deployed their powertrain tech at a military base in 29 Palms, California, where intermittent solar connectivity made diesel the prime energy source. A 10MW installation, this low-inertia microgrid efficiently adjusted power outputs, allowing the base to run on 98% renewable energy. Because solar and wind energy have unpredictable yields—the great tyranny of clouds and afternoons without gusting winds—fast-acting microgrids can smooth natural intermittencies. Thinking small helps us reconceive power and scale on the decentralized grids of our future. 

  Chris Ball, Senior Manager at Bloom Energy, is also invested in overcoming clean energy’s organic limitations. Ball organized his presentation around a simple idea: “the intersection between sustainability and reliability.” In order for the world to embrace sustainable hegemony and lower carbon emissions, we must bolster traditional renewables with dependable energy sources. Ball argued that green hydrogen can reinforce clean economies, meeting 20% of our energy needs by 2050. 

Hydrogen is a fraught topic within environmental circles, facing social and political resistance. Because it repurposes excess CO2 from traditional industry, conventional hydrogen is tied to fossil fuel production. But even this energy source (hydrogen’s fossil-based variant) is valuable in accelerating our decarbonization efforts. The steel industry, which accounts for almost 8% of global CO2 emissions, is difficult to decarbonize at the source; hydrogen can absorb and repurpose those excess emissions. To make hydrogen energy based on fossil infrastructure, one reacts natural gas with high-temperature steam. This molecular process will aid our global energy transition, operating as a key stop-gap until green hydrogen cements a low-carbon economy. 

Produced independently of the fossil economy, green hydrogen is reacted when a Solid Oxide Electrolyzer (SOEC) breaks down electrical energy sourced from wind and solar. This form is a valuable energy source because it can be deployed for transportation, industrial processes, or even to power a microgrid; in other words, it is stable and can smooth the “natural intermittencies” inherent to renewables that both Campbell and Ball cited. The debate over whether hydrogen sustains a destructive fossil economy highlights the diverse nature of renewable energy production. Any who claim that wind and solar will consume the “energy pie” fail to acknowledge the breadth of approaches to clean energy generation. We must be both nimble and creative in our decarbonization efforts, and that implies powering our lives with a diverse array of sustainable tech. 

  The conference’s final speaker, Hugh McDermott from ESS Inc, began his presentation by introducing two ingredients: iron and salt water. ESS has developed a very simple battery that can (in theory) run indefinitely on basic chemistry reactions. Lost in many conversations about sustainable infrastructure are the harmful mining and extraction practices that accompany battery production. Lithium extraction wastes vast amounts of water, and—in the event of leaks—can poison local rivers and reservoirs. Because the iron flow battery is comprised of simple, earth-abundant materials, scaling the technology will not convert South American salt flats into toxic brine pools or rob local communities of water. Its water-based design is non-flammable, non-explosive, and non-toxic. And because the battery is simple to construct and modular in its design (ESS deploys the product in “Energy Warehouses,” which are essentially retrofitted shipping containers), it has a far cheaper cost of ownership, ensuring millions in savings over Li-ion-based competitors. McDermott explained that the IFB is perfect for pristine environments where ecological catastrophes can disrupt vulnerable ecologies. Later this year, ESS will install a microgrid in remote Patagonia, where their IFB will manage between 75-400kWh of hydro energy. 

These presentations indicate that the future of renewable energy will be vibrant and responsive to shifting societal conditions. Microgrids enable a modular approach to power storage, allowing clients to order unique batteries and varied designs. Hopefully, this diverse selection of private-sector tech can be bolstered by public policy and independently verified to ensure its renewable credentials. The sustainable power industry is growing up, and—with the climate crisis disrupting our energy and food supplies—let’s hope that growth is quick and exponential. 

At GreenWorldAlliance, we are gathering expertise on microgrids and battery storage. Follow this link to read an article on the failures of conventional electric grids, and go here to learn how we can get the most out microgrids. If you would like to sign up for upcoming MicrogridKnowledge conferences, you can follow this link.   

–Maxwell Rowe-Sutton