Microgrids are everywhere — and they’re incredibly accessible

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As organizations move toward net-zero carbon initiatives, microgrids have become a driving force in the overall sustainability trajectory because of their expansive application across industries. Jana Gerber, microgrid North America president at Schneider Electric, explains.

Microgrids

Jana Gerber, Schneider Electric’s North American microgrid president

The need for advanced electrical storage and distributed energy resources to supplement the expansion of an industry’s energy and productive output, especially from renewable resources, has seen rapid growth in recent years. In fact, demand for electricity is set to triple by 2050, with renewable generation responsible for 80%-90% of that electricity. In order to facilitate the anticipated demand for this transition in energy distribution and generation, advanced cloud-driven and centralized controls in an integrated microgrid are necessary for progress.

A microgrid is a self-contained electrical network that allows organizations to generate their own electricity on-site. Microgrids tie together distributed energy resources in their system and can operate while connected to the utility grid or in disconnected “island” mode, utilizing software controls and battery energy storage system technology to effectively distribute and regulate energy resources when and where they are needed most. Though this technology might sound advanced and intimidating, microgrids are incredibly accessible and can provide the electrical infrastructure to power many different industries and everyday power needs such as commercial real estate, residential communities, government facilities, schools, bus depots and much more.

Microgrids in the real world — how it all works

Facilities often look for sustainability, and microgrids meet this need while also providing resilient and reliable power sources. Widespread microgrid adoption has led to this technology emerging as a main component in energy distribution strategies for organizations looking to improve both sustainability and operational resilience while also managing costs and efficiencies.

Microgrids are incredibly versatile — and their application enhances the operation of any facility that benefits from stronger electrical controls and integrated energy management. Below are some real-world examples that illustrate how microgrids impact nearly every facet of our everyday lives through digital and energy management transformation.

1. Government and public facilities

The Port of Long Beach in California is the second busiest port in the US, handling up to $914 billion in cargo per year, and it uses a microgrid, which includes a 300-kW photovoltaic (PV) solar panel array and a 250-kW stationary battery energy storage system to reduce reliance on diesel generators and electricity costs. The installation of PV systems enables energy production, microgrid-extending batteries support energy storage, and cloud-connected controls allow for demand response, peak shaving and operational optimization, while islanded – or disconnected – operations improve energy resilience. Through the microgrid’s advanced controls, the port will not only enhance resilience and increase safety and security for its critical infrastructure, but the project also advances the goal of reaching zero-emission operations.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Safety Headquarters (PSHQ) installed a PEER-certified microgrid from Schneider Electric and Duke Energy Renewables, receiving upgrades in its infrastructure and clean power generation via solar renewables and natural gas generators, all handled on-site. The county’s largest PSHQ, through the advanced microgrid, has the capability to meet 100% of its power consumption from its present, on-site solar generation, natural gas generator and the combined heat and power system. Additionally, 100% of the PSHQ’s heating and cooling load is met through the district energy system. With this, the PSHQ uses its infrastructural amenities to realize an overall annual energy savings of 12 million units, with a cost savings of $486,000 annually. Sustainability progress has also been remarkable, with a measured reduction of 11,000 tons of carbon emissions per year.

At the Fox Cities Environmental Learning Center at Bubolz Nature Preserve, a new state-of-the-art, energy-efficient microgrid was installed for the nature center. The microgrid provides power and resiliency to the learning lab, supplying the 18,000 square foot lodge with a microgrid that deploys solar photovoltaics, energy storage, a fuel cell, a microturbine and a natural gas generator to provide consistent and reliable energy conditions for the lab’s daily operations. The learning center has made significant progress toward zero carbon emissions and is achieving 50% lifetime power savings, meaning it will supply power while simultaneously consuming net-zero energy. The Bubolz microgrid benefits the preserve and the wider microgrid industry as one of the most advanced microgrids in existence, acting as a testing site for increasingly sophisticated microgrid operations.

2. Agricultural and food production facilities

Microgrids also provide resilient, cost-effective electrification and power for electricity-intensive food production facilities such as vertical farms and manufacturing plants, reducing carbon emissions and providing sustainable renewable power in the process.

Fifth Season, a vertical indoor farming company, is using Schneider Electric’s comprehensive microgrid hardware and software to power its entire indoor farming infrastructure, which is effectively reducing water consumption by 95% and has eliminated the farm’s carbon output, making the operation net zero. The microgrid leverages battery storage, switchgear and advanced controls technology in the system to deliver sustainable and dynamic energy management for Fifth Season’s integrated, autonomous vertical farm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With the microgrid in use, Fifth Season is able to streamline the operator experience and scale performance using powerful integrated grid controls and energy management solutions that cut costs and provide energy efficiency for maximum resiliency.

Similarly, Bimbo Bakeries USA installed GreenStruxure’s microgrids and comprehensive hybrid systems across its six California locations. Expected to reduce carbon emissions by 25% and help reach its goal of net-zero operations by 2050, the organization is using GreenStruxure’s energy-as-a-service (EaaS) model for financing, installation and backup generator setups. Under this model, the organization avoids upfront costs and will only need to pay for the energy it uses while GreenStruxture installs, maintains and operates the microgrids for them.

3. Military and transport facilities

Many cities and states are moving forward with their sustainability goals through the use of distributed energy resources. In Maryland, Montgomery County set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2035. In a joint venture with The Carlyle Group, Schneider Electric deployed a first-of-its-kind project to accelerate the county’s transition to electric buses and installed a state-of-the-art microgrid to advance and sustainably power Montgomery County’s EV bus infrastructure. Installation plans for the project included custom EaaS solutions to accelerate its sustainability, resilience, energy cost management and electrification priorities, with 100% of its generated green energy produced using a public safety microgrid. The project, upon the deployment of the advanced microgrid, avoided a $4 million capital repair investment via the EaaS model and leverages 100% clean energy to power all county facilities and its 1,000+ electric vehicles.

At the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (MCAS) in San Diego, California, a microgrid system enabled more than 100 mission-critical facilities to continue operations and provided over 2,000 homes with power amidst a blackout in August 2020. In addition to the reliability of the microgrid during an energy crisis, the microgrid uses 75% renewable energy for the base and local utilities. The microgrid is also capable of operating in “island mode.” Most notably, MCAS Miramar was prepared for the August 2020 blackout by successfully conducting a full-scale Energy Resilience Readiness Exercise assessment, finding that the microgrid can sustain all energy needs for critical support and flight line operations.

Conclusion

While microgrids have traditionally been used in industries where grid reliability is regularly challenged by extreme weather or aging infrastructure, the opportunity is ripe for any industry or sector looking to improve its operational efficiency while reducing its carbon footprint.

The market for microgrids is clearly an expansive market. Microgrids are extremely modular and can be equipped to fit the energy or operational needs of the facility of your choosing.

Whether the focus is on transportation, infrastructure, military installations, learning labs, agricultural facilities or more, microgrids are among the most effective and versatile electrical infrastructure that can power both public and private facilities without the need of a grid. The next step in the evolution of self-sustaining renewable energy storage is the adoption of this technology, and microgrids are paving the way for these benefits to be more accessible and achievable than ever before.

Jana Gerber is microgrid North America president at Schneider Electric.

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