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Nation’s Largest Microgrid Online

By Albert Chan


Many myths about renewable energy refuse to die. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research (a group backed by the fossil fuel industry), describes renewable energy as a pipe dream, saying that solar energy is “ineffective, expensive and unreliable.”

Naysayers are also quick to point out that the electricity grid is so complex that it cannot function without the base level of power that coal and nuclear power plants provide. However, microgrids like the one at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) that serve a specific geographic area and leverage customers’ ability to use power more intelligently, may be the ultimate solution that puts these myths to rest.

At a time when solar energy has grown exponentially, cut module costs fourfold in three years, and become cost-competitive in quite a few areas around the world, Pyle’s concern of effectiveness and expense is being flipped on its head. The remaining concern of reliability may soon be overcome, as well. The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, but microgrids can smooth out the variability of renewable energy generation—and they’re far more resilient than dependence on giant power stations whose failure loses a billion watts in milliseconds, often for weeks or months.

The electric grid must evolve in response to aging infrastructure, national security risks, and environmental concerns. To ensure the grid’s evolution into a healthy, sustainable, and efficient electric system powered by renewable energy, customers must understand the implications of an intelligent grid and become involved in this dynamic system. Students and staff at UCSD have become an integral part of one of the nation’s largest experiments in microgrids.

Microgrids are the foundation for a revolutionary electric system that ensures reliability by focusing on the customer. By creating a feedback loop between the utility and the end user, microgrids become powerful tools in supply and demand. Just as knowledge has been revolutionized by the power of individual contributions (Wikipedia has had millions of participants that shape our collective knowledge), our energy ecosystem can be transformed similarly. Because of the importance of these evolving systems, RMI is partnering with key institutions to prove that creative microgrid application can be as reliable as the status quo, if not more so.

The Power of Microgrids

Microgrids are subsets of the greater grid and usually include their own generation (such as photovoltaics, wind turbines, and fuel cells), their own demand (lights, fans, televisions, computers, etc.) and often the ability to modulate it to match price and priority, and perhaps even storage capability (such as batteries or the distributed storage in electrified vehicles). What makes the microgrid unique is that it intelligently coordinates and balances all these technologies. When the microgrid detects a sudden drop in solar generation, it can ramp up a backup natural gas cogenerator or even temporarily and unobtrusively turn off noncritical air conditioners. If wind generation exceeds demand, the microgrid can signal the system and users to charge additional electric vehicles. This intricate dance among supply, demand, and storage can enable a cleaner and more resilient future.

Microgrids are already demonstrating their ability to manage variable generation. Microgrid projects from Korea to Denmark to California and Hawai‘i all carry the singular purpose of demonstrating the art of the possible. Denmark has been piloting a “cellular” grid structure—stress-tested annually by pulling microgrids’ plug from the main grid to make sure critical loads stay on (they do). Cuba used microgrids, distributed generation, and efficient use to cut its serious blackout days from 224 in 2005 to zero in 2007—and then sustain vital services in 2008 while two hurricanes in two weeks shredded the eastern grid.

The microgrid at UCSD has already proved that it strengthens the university’s — and the local grid’s — resilience. In 2009, when the rest of the utility grid was threatened by wildfires, UCSD was able to go from a 3 megawatt net importer to a 2 megawatt net exporter in 30 minutes by turning down its 4,000 non-critical thermostats by a few degrees while increasing onsite generation. UCSD’s actions played a critical role in keeping the whole area’s lights on.

Moving Forward

Transforming our dirty, insecure, obsolescent, fossil-fuel-dominated grid to a clean, dynamic, resilient, modern, and renewable-focused grid is a herculean task. The 120-year-old machine has tremendous inertia, and its operations will not change overnight. However, the U.S. military, which manages risk astutely and does not take change lightly, is embracing microgrids as a critical initiative. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Stockman told Congress in May that military tests of microgrids are proving to “reduce the vulnerability of our power supplies to disruption” and can serve as examples for communities and practices.

In 2008, the military recognized that the aging infrastructure and vulnerable architecture of the current grid represent a significant risk to mission continuity and national security. In a multi-year program called SPIDERS (Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security), military teams across the country have embarked on proving the operational feasibility and the benefits of a more resilient grid based on microgrid applications.

Dr. Bill Waugaman, the military’s National Laboratories liaison, speaks about microgrids with an air of urgency. To him, it is clear that microgrids will ensure the military’s continued resilience in modern times. Waugaman’s vision for the SPIDERS program also includes a new paradigm of utility operations that will benefit the whole nation. With RMI support to document best practices and in bringing key stakeholders together, the military and a growing number of institutions are planting the seed that renewable resources can successfully be integrated into our power supply—saving money, cutting pollution, improving health, increasing reliability, and strengthening national security. Growing that seed to fruition will require broad creativity and participation in the grid of the future.

 
 
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