Microgrids Offer Clean Energy Options

Alcatraz, the famous island prison-turned-tourist-attraction, runs on a micro grid.

Alcatraz, the famous island prison-turned-tourist-attraction, runs on a micro grid.

The electricity most people use each day at home, at work, or in places like schools and hospitals comes to them through the electric grid. Typically, the grid, which powers most of our homes, workplaces, or large building complexes such as schools and hospitals, connects to cover a wide geographical area, sometimes even multiple states. It delivers power produced at a central point, usually a large power plant facility.

This complex method of distributing power has been the norm for decades. However, upkeep of such a vast network can be costly; a disturbance to the grid by severe weather can leave entire sections without power for long periods. The standard electric grid also presents challenges to implementing sustainable energy systems. Its heavy infrastructure relies on long-established utility companies and their subsidiaries, and they can be reluctant about incorporating renewable energy sources.

In response, an alternative to the traditional large-scale grid design has emerged: the microgrid.

What is a microgrid?

A microgrid is, as the name suggests, much smaller than the traditional grid and it serves a very local area. It can power a small community or locality. In its 2016 Boston Community Energy Study, the Boston Redevelopment Authority defined a microgrid as "an electrical distribution network with underground wires that serves two or more buildings in a local area.” Importantly,  “Microgrids can enter into ‘island mode’ and separate from the larger electrical grid when there is a major outage- self supplying with locally generated energy."

New York University used a microgrid during Hurricane Sandy to “island,” or provide its own power when the utility grid was out. In Fort Collins, Colorado, a microgrid is helping the community reach its goal of creating all the power it uses. Biogas and solar electricity make up a significant percentage of the power used in Fort Collins.

A community might choose a microgrid because it provides options. It can connect to the grid and use the electricity provided by a local utility company, or it can disconnect and operate autonomously. The benefits of a microgrid, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), are that they can

  • cut costs,

  • allow for independence,

  • provide electricity during power outages, and

  • offer more environmentally friendly energy sources.

Why is it important?

We discussed energy democracy in a previous post on this blog (read it here). Microgrids are another example of how clean energy and community-owned energy contribute to energy democracy. A community can choose what it needs in a microgrid rather than having to take what a utility offers. By considering needs over profits, a microgrid puts the power in the people’s hands.

The recent Boston Community Energy Study explores how microgrids create “resilient” communities. It found that microgrids can provide up to 30 percent cost savings and 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The study also found that a local microgrid can help secure and strengthen a vulnerable community, which makes it energy resilient.

Why we’re for it

Microgrids offer a practical way of connecting communities across the U.S. with clean energy. As advocates of energy democracy, we like that microgrids work at the local level to support the transition from traditional fossil fuels to sustainable sources.

With so many voices in the conversation on clean energy and climate change, it can be hard to get your head around just what it all means. The EESI blog puts the sometimes complex issues surrounding sustainability and renewable power into simple, plain language. Take part in the discussion–share your opinion in the comments section.