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Microgrids, Now Mainstream, Continue to Advance

November 25, 2015 By Carl Weinschenk

microgridFourth quarter numbers from Navigant Research show that for the first time more microgrids are remote than tied to the main grid. In short, microgrids are leaving home.

The research found that there are 1,437 microgrids worldwide providing 13 GW of capacity. More than half of these are remote. Significant recent additions are 83 projects – more than 13 GW of capacity – via The NY Prize competition and 816 MW near the Arctic Circle in Russia.

In a September report, Technavio provided a good definition of a remote microgrid. It says it is a form of localized power grid that functions independently and produces, distributes, and controls the flow of energy to consumers.” The analysts agreed on its great prospects with Navigant: It said that remote microgrids will enjoy a 13 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from this year until 2019.

Microgrids are becoming mainstream. Peter Asmus, the Principal Analyst and author of the report, told Energy Manager Today that utilities are trying to figure out where they stand. “The most recent trend is greater utility involvement,” he said. “If in 2009 you mention microgrids to utilities, they would say. ‘We don’t do that.’ They were trying to kill microgrids. Now utilities are saying, ‘They seem to be happening, so what role can we play?’ They are trying to figure out the business model. Should they build them? Invest in them? [They are grappling with question such as] ‘If there different companies doing this in our territories, how should we manage it?’ “

Asmus added that utilities in some cases are building their own experimental microgrids.

The project in Russia is an example of deployment of microgrids in cold regions. Microgrid Knowledge maps out the rationale: These areas – the story focuses on the use of a microgrid from Saft America’s ESS business unit by the Kotzebue Electric Association in Alaska – can use microgrids to reduce reliance diesel fuel to run generators, which is expensive to ship in.

Not All in Harsh Weather

Not all the microgrid advances are in harsh weather. Yesterday, UPI reported that The Air Force Research Laboratory and the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies will research microgrids and alternative fuels. The $20 million demonstration project at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam will focus on enabling the Hawaii Air National Guard to function off the main grid for long periods of time, according to the story.

Connected microgrids can supplement the main grid and, in case of emergency, go into “island mode” to be the sole power source for those to which it is connected. The searing experience of hurricane Sandy and Irene in the northeast – where a lot of high level corporate executives and investment-related people live, after all – is no doubt driving microgrids. Asmus added that the general insecurity engendered by global warming is adding to support of microgrids.

In a promo to its November issue which is entirely dedicated to microgrids — Transmission and Distribution World cites fuel savings, reduction of emissions and fuel independence as drivers of the grid segment. The promo concludes that those drivers are secondary to keeping the lights on: Reducing outages “remain the chief motivating influence” in the emergence of microgrids.

Partnering with Renewables

The growth of microgrids goes hand in glove with the growth of renewables. ICF International weighed in a slightly broader category. Its report measures the growth of distributed solar energy generation. This includes – but is not limited to — microgrids. The report on the research at PennEnergy said that the category is strong but that the progress won’t be smooth. There will be an acceleration for the rest of 2015 and next year in anticipation of a reduction in the U.S. federal investment tax credit, which is slated for the end of 2016. That will be followed by a slowdown in 2017 when the reduction actually occurs.

The story – and the report upon which it is based – paints a bright picture:

It turns out that even without the credit, solar is cost-effective in states where electricity is pricey, like Connecticut, a key microgrid market. And analysts expect pricing to get even better. Commercial solar costs fell by more than 60 percent from 2002 to 2015; Deutsche Bank forecasts another 40 percent drop by 2017, ICF says.

The stars are aligning for microgrids: Diversification of power sources is seen as a good idea by more people, renewable sources add to flexibility and lower costs and new approaches to storage make the approach more attractive. “I would say the whole market is growing, at least steadily and in some cases rapidly and aggressively,” Asmus said.

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