Top Three Things to Consider When Planning a Microgrid

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POWER Engineers’ Greg Clark, highlights three crucial elements to consider for microgrid planning and early development, including environmental considerations, regulatory issues and technical feasibility. 

Greg Clark, senior project manager, POWER Engineers

You’ve decided a microgrid may be a viable solution to meet your needs, and suddenly, there’s a litany of questions to answer. Even worse, you might not even know which questions to ask, as each microgrid and each situation is different. Do you need black start capabilities? Where is your microgrid, and what state and local regulations do you need to consider? What about emissions and fuel sources? Which parts of your system have critical power needs? Do you even have room for this thing or the upgrades that might be needed? 

It may seem overwhelming at first. But in general, there are three different categories of questions we’ve found are crucial to ask when helping our clients in their  microgrid  planning: environmental, regulatory and technical. 

Environmental considerations 

Often, when we think of microgrids, we think of renewables. While many microgrids do incorporate renewables in their fuel mix, many of them also rely on combustion sources to fill out the energy profile. If you plan to use microturbines, engines or fuel cells for power, you’re probably going to need to get an air permit, which will require studying the impacts the microgrid may have on the site. Emissions may actually be higher on a pound per MWh basis when compared to the macrogrid. 

In addition, microgrids take up a larger footprint than a grid connection. Additional infrastructure will likely require site permitting, which means considering potential impacts on wetlands, biological and cultural resources as well as the visual impacts of on-site equipment. 

Engaging with local utility service providers early in the planning process, and carefully reviewing their interconnection requirements, is a critical step in avoiding costly mistakes and delays down the road. 

Regulatory issues 

Sometimes the most difficult and time-consuming elements of a microgrid project may not necessarily be technical but may rather be regulatory in nature. Local and state level regulations have the potential to stall or severely limit your microgrid goals. Engaging with local utility service providers early in the planning process, and carefully reviewing their interconnection requirements, is a critical step in avoiding costly mistakes and delays down the road. 

Technical feasibility 

Before starting on design, it’s best to ask two simple questions: is what I want possible, and how do I know the system will behave the way I want it to? Some technical considerations  — do we want black start capability? Does the transition to and from islanded mode need to be “bump-less”? Are isolation devices required, and where should we locate them? — are a matter of thinking about what you need a microgrid to do for you. More complicated questions, such as the type of load your microgrid will need to carry and whether or not your system has the power needed to energize transformers and start large motors, may require detailed system modeling and analysis. 

At any point in the feasibility study process, you may find that your ideal microgrid isn’t possible, or that it would require infrastructure upgrades that aren’t in the budget. But where you might see a wall, our studies folks see a hurdle—a challenge, but one that can be overcome. Studies can provide the information you need to determine what’s possible and what’s not, as well as help develop a workable solution. 

Don’t be afraid to ask 

Sometimes, the best place to start with a microgrid is by partnering with a firm that knows how to ask the right questions. Since the answers to these questions will eventually lead your company to the right microgrid solution for you, it’s crucial to make sure you get the information you need to make good decisions. While it’s a heavy lift if you try to do it in-house, partnering with a firm with microgrid expertise can help you ask the right questions and turn those answers into a microgrid solution that fits your needs. 

Greg Clark is a senior project manager at POWER Engineers.

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