Although conventional electric grids form the backbone of our energy infrastructure, they have become expensive to maintain, and will not satisfy our future of higher electricity demand and unpredictable weather conditions.
This was my fundamental takeaway from an event I attended on Tuesday, May 11, hosted by Microgrid Knowledge, as part of their 2021 virtual Microgrid conference. The event was provocatively titled “Why the Electric Grid is No Longer Enough” and featured four professional speakers: Shawn Bennet, Senior Advisor at the Air Force Office of Energy Assurance (OEA); Mark Feasel, President of Schneider Electric; Joe Gammie, a Business Development Engineer at PowerSecure; and Mick Wasco, the Utilities and Energy Management Branch Head at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar.
The Editor in Chief at Microgrid Knowledge, Elisa Wood, began the panel discussion by asking how traditional energy grids—especially those powered by fossil energy—fail to meet changing societal conditions. Mark Feasel explained that, while total energy consumption will remain flat over the next two decades (this stabilization is due to energy efficiency improvements), electricity consumption will double. Traditional electric grids were designed in a distinct technological milieu, and cannot handle the combined inputs of data mining, edge computing, battery storage, electric vehicles, and non-fossil-based heating and cooling. As more of our economy transitions to renewable electric power, the fossil energy that alleviated grid load will disappear.
Beyond shifting energy requirements, the inherent structure of centralized energy grids begs critique. In our current system, energy travels long distances from power plants to end-consumers. As a piece at Microgrid Knowledge argues, “delivering power from afar is inefficient because some of the electricity—as much as eight to fifteen percent—dissipates in transit.” Both Mark Feasel and Joe Gammie highlighted the economic benefits of local energy generation, claiming that it is a meaningful vector through which to lower costs for businesses considering microgrid installations. This marks an instance in which economic benefits correspond with environmental benefits, because less wasted energy means that more natural energy inputs are being utilized.
While important, these benefits might be considered “edge” effects against the central advantage of microgrids: they improve climate resiliency. Resiliency is a deeply resonant concept for climate adaptation, implying that communities—and the tech that undergirds them—have the flexibility, foresight, and strength to survive an era of environmental degradation. Despite their unique backgrounds, each panelist addressed the implications of a coming century of superstorms, blackouts, and energy instability. Mark Feasel described installing small microgrids for Credit Unions in Puerto Rico, which retained local energy during the storm season. The special structure of microgrids, in which they function as separate but symbiotic islands, ensures that localized events—for instance, a fallen tree damaging a power line—do not damage the entire grid.
During a series of rolling blackouts in San Diego, California, in August 2020, the advanced Miramar Air Force Base successfully provided 3.3 MW of residential power. Mick Wasco, who manages Miramar’s energy programs, described the complex nature of his base’s energy installation, and the gratification of supporting his local region during a moment of distress. This bridged a discussion on the societal benefits of microgrids, and whether every installation should be as responsive and intelligent as those operated by the military or other essential services. The panelists agreed that microgrids are both modular and flexible, ensuring that each public/private instantiation will have different characteristics and behaviors.
The hour-long discussion was concise, informative, and revealed how microgrids are poised to reinvent the US energy infrastructure. The only unfortunate aspect was that the event had to occur remotely, but the pandemic makes this reality unavoidable.
Regardless, the coming month promises a series of fascinating microgrid discussions. You can sign up to attend future events by following this link.
– Maxwell Rowe-Sutton