Renewables and Microgrids and Nothing Else: Crazy or Maybe?

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Renewables and microgrids are natural companions on the electric grid. Could the day come when we have a grid of all microgrids run on 100 percent renewables?

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(Photo: Shutterstock/By Christos Georghiou)

For most advanced economies the idea of no centralized grid and no fossil fuels is at best far in the future. But all audacious goals begin one step at a time. And such is the case for a campaign to make the world’s energy supply all renewable.

Notably, two U.S. states that often lead the way on green energy policy — California and Massachusetts — are now looking at becoming part of movement. At the same time, a government research body in Australia recently found the 100 percent goal to be technically possible for the nation.

“As renewables continue to become the most economical, resilient energy option, especially in the electricity sector, 100 percent renewable energy goals have continued to become a growing trend around the world, with cities and states increasingly seeking to bind targets with legislation,” said Diane Moss, founding director of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute.

The idea of pushing for a world that uses only renewable energy emerged in the mid-2000s with Hermann Scheer, former general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy. It was slow going at first. But with falling prices for wind and solar and a ground-up consumer push for green energy, the effort has accelerated.

Look  who’s on board

By 2013, eight countries, 42 cities, 49 regions had either reached the 100 percent renewables goal or were determined to do so, according to the Renewables 100 Policy Institute.

Today the institute says the numbers are up to more than 50 countries, 69 cities and 62 regions/state.

Among U.S. states, Hawaii has led the way with a 2015 law requiring that electric utilities generate all of their power from renewables by 2045. A bill (SB 1186) is now being considered that would require the transportation sector use 100 renewables as well.

More than 50 Massachusetts lawmakers want to take it one step further in their state. They’ve signed onto a bill (HD.3357) that would make the state’s entire energy economy – electricity, heat and transportation – run on renewable energy by 2050. The electric grid would be required to reach the goal first – by 2035.

Meanwhile, California’s Senate leader Kevin de León last month introduced legislation (SB 584) that would make the state’s electric grid all renewable by 2045.

Other states also are pushing aggressive goals – if not 100 percent. Vermont, for example, is striving for 90 percent renewables by 2050. New York wants renewables to fuel 50 percent of its electricity by 2030, a goal that helped spur a 795 percent increase in solar installations over the last five years. New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported last week installation of 64,926 projects, enough to power 121,000 homes.

Ciities are on the move too. Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg, Kansas are already 100 percent renewable. Kodiak Island in Alaska is almost there, using 95 percent renewables. Pueblo, Colorado last month voted to pursue the goal, as did Boulder last year. A sprinkling of cities in other states are pursuing the goal as well, with California topping the list. Among its cities pursuing the goal are Lancaster, Del Mar, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego.

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Some worldwide examples include Costa Rica, which periodically runs on all renewables. Munich, Germany is on the list of those striving for the goal, as is Copenhagen, Denmark. Canberra, the Capitol of Australia, legislated a 100 percent renewable power goal by 2020. (The Renewables 100 Policy Institute keeps a list here.)

Why renewables and microgrids as partners?

Renewables and microgrids are natural companions. For one, new microgrids increasingly include solar plus storage. But perhaps more significant, microgrids act as a kind of counterbalance on the grid to the intermittency of renewable energy.

When a cloud suddenly passes over a solar panel or the wind stops and turbines slow, a microgrid can quickly inject energy and services into the grid. This keeps power flowing steadily so that consumers experience no dip in service – or worse a power outage. Using its own highly intelligent software system, the nearby microgrid draws upon its various internal resources – perhaps energy storage or combined heat and power – to serve the grid.

For this reason, the more renewables we add, the more microgrids we will need. Microgrids are newer to the game than renewables, just recently getting off the ground as an industry. But as renewables continue to rise in use, expect to see microgrids do the same.

It’s still the economy, stupid

There are a range of reasons states pursue renewable goals: environmental concerns, a desire for local control over energy, the benefit of free fuel. But one of the biggest reasons is economic growth.

These states want to draw in manufacturers, software designers, installers and other green energy businesses. Why? Because the clean, green and advanced energy sector is growing fast.

Consider these statistics from a January 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Energy. Of the 26 GW of utility-scale electric generation added to the U.S. grid in 2016, about 93 percent came from three main resources: solar (9.5 GW), natural gas (8 GW), and wind (6.8 GW).

As a result, renewables, along with related advanced energy sectors, such as energy efficiency, offer a lot of jobs. The Advanced Energy Economy recently pegged the number at 3.3 million jobs – equal to the employment of retail stores across the country, and twice as many jobs as involved in construction of buildings.

Given the hoopla from the federal government about the loss of coal jobs, it may come as a surprise how few jobs coal produces compared to the clean energy sector.  Coal mining – which the Trump administration hopes to revive – reached a peak employment of just under 90,000 jobs in 2012 and now employs 53,000 people, according to the DOE. By way of comparison, AEE pegged jobs in the energy efficiency sector at 2 million.

“People often don’t realize that energy efficiency is such a huge jobs creator,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. “It supports about three times as many jobs as the mining industry and unlike that sector it is growing and creating good-paying jobs like weatherizing homes and manufacturing high-efficiency appliances or building materials.”

Beating expections

Despite this growth, renewables still have a long way to go before they reach 100 percent in the U.S. Renewables only accounted for 15.3 percent of domestic electrical generation in 2016, according to the Sun Day campaign, which tracks data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

But the sector has been beating government expectations. Renewable use made a big leap — 23 percent — from last year. EIA had expected only a 9.5 percent rise, according to the Sun Day campaign.

“Given the trends of recent years, it is probably no great surprise that solar, wind, and other renewable sources once again surpassed EIA’s expectations,” said Ken Bossong, executive director of the Sun Day Campaign. “Yet, EIA continues to low-ball its latest forecasts for renewables thereby doing a serious disservice to the cross-section of rapidly growing clean energy technologies.”

Now for the really audacious

Here’s an even more audacious goal. Can we talk about pursuing 100 percent renewables and microgrids?

There are energy visionaries today, who like Herman Scheer a decade ago, are talking about the grand idea that they call a grid of grids. Nationwide, a chain of local networks would provide our power, trading among each other via complex algorithms, set for highest efficiencies and cost-effectiveness.

Very early work is already underway on configuring this grid of grids. Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison, is working on a master controller to oversee multiple microgrids. And small companies like California-based CleanSpark and big companies like General Electric are working on projects that offer first steps toward a constellation of microgrids operatingn on the U.S. grid.

Microgrids use a lot of different resources, not just renewables. So it’s not a given that a grid of grids would be all renewables. Still, these two resources — renewables and microgrids — seem to be moving into the future on the same track, one where energy becomes increasingly clean, efficient and distributed.

So in 10, 20, 30 years could we have a grid of all renewables and microgrids? Is it crazy or possible? Tell us what you think. Post your comments below or on our LinkedIn Group, Microgrid Knowledge.

Read more about renewables and microgrids by subscribing to the Microgrid Knowledge newsletter. It’s free.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. David Fichtenberg says:

    What, if anything, is the World Council for Renewable Energy doing about promoting that all renewable energy projects be adequately mitigated against corona mass ejection (CME) solar storm caused the geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, either high-altitude EMP (HEMP) or high power microwave? All of the microgrid wiring could be fried by an EMP or GMD – what a pity. Why not also make them EMP and GMD resilient? Costs are reported to be about 1% to 3% over non-EMP mitigated items IF DONE AT INITIAL INSTALATION. Document DHS App A-C EMP Protect Restore EquipFacilities Ver1
    below has an Appendix B that lists entrepreneurs with experience in EMP mitigation, including for microgrids, e.g. Instant Access Networks has experience building microgrids for the U.S. millitary.

    3 good primers are:
    1. High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments
    Updated July 21, 2008


    3. DHS App A-C EMP Protect Restore EquipFacilities Ver1 and also same title but App D.
    Appendix B provides a listing of entrepreneurs experienced in EMP mitigation, including for microgrids, e.g. Instant Access Networks at

  2. David Fichtenberg says:

    What are the pathways, if any, whereby a current large centralized electric power utility, say, a coal burning facility or natural gas, nuclear, or hydroelectric (which is a renewable and clean), can morph its business model into supporting microgrids? Or do they just agree to go out of business or significantly scale down?

    • David, I would suggest that the large IOU’s begin to petition the various PUC’s to allow them to become involved in the funding and perhaps then even management, (If they fund the assets), of behind the meter energy storage and management systems. perhaps in the commercial building sector. A cleaner and more efficient way to generate and distribute energy is really in the best interest of the public, the company, and all stakeholders. In this way they can better manage and control at least some of the various and even the larger energy and storage assets. Forget about building new billion dollar fossil fuel peaker and centralized generation plants, and the associated transmission lines. Local renewable energy plants, combined with behind the meter customer generation is the best possible future for all concerned. They need to get in the game. YES, there will be a learning curve…. but it’s time to get in line and in step with the future, or step aside and let Tesla Energy and others like them become the new IOU, powered by the people!

  3. Greg McBee says:

    Maximum 30 percent penetration for renewables or the grid may start to wobble.

  4. The way to 100% renewables is in microgrids, but not a grid of grids. Small independent microgrids supplying residences, businesses, and communities. Just like the transition from community telephones to individual mobile phones, we need to go from a centralized grid to independent microgrids.

  5. Z'ev Gross says:

    While the hype is nice we are now looking at a myriad of small utilities (someone has got to manage the microgrid operation) as opposed to a small number of large ones. Think now of how many interventions will have to come from regulators to deal with tariff issues at the untold number of microgrid level as opposed to – let’s say – the PJM level.

    Let’s look at the capacity of the microgrid owners/operators to maintain their systems, assure constant competent technical support etc. etc. etc.

    I, personally, believe in “localized energy supply” (another nomer for a microgrid?) but it carries heavy technical and social responsibilities which no one is really addressing.

  6. Dear All,
    A community or county operated on 100% renewable energy may not be that far away. As part of the NY Prize Microgrid Program, we at Hitachi America worked with a community with this type of goal. Frankly, they pushed us through our own disbelief, and we are better for it. The results for this county community was that by using a microgrid with a portfolio of on-site resources for 75% of the energy, and purchased hydro for the remainder of the energy (25%), we got the price within 30% of the current all-in electricity bills. So, the economic case was not compelling today, but in about 6 or 7 years, the all-in electricity bills will be 30% higher, and the cost of providing renewable energy will continue to decrease. So, we may be just a few years away from seeing the potential for widespread 100% renewable communities and counties.

  7. Kilowatt Labs has been installing systems in the Middle East, eliminating diesel generators 100%, and operating full operational loads directly from PV solar and storage, using its Centauri Energy Server, a hardware and software platform that enables electricity supply from renewable directly to the load. Now Kilowatt Labs has also added its Sirius Energy Storage – the first supercap based storage in the world. With PV solar, Centauri Server and Sirius Storage, 100% renewable based microgrids are available at pricing that is 18-20 cents/kWh. The technology is available for 100% renewable based electricity today. The ONLY challenge that remains is inefficient PV panels – space is always an issue for us because of the solar panels inefficiency and low capacity factor. While prices have come down, low prices don’t address the issue of space.

    We need better solar panels, much better, much much better. Storage and power electronics are here. Solar panels are causing the drag.

    Once this problem is solved, it will be very easy to transition to renewable based electricity available everywhere, cheaply. Fossil fuel plants will mostly be retired, but some fossil fuel generation will be needed for weather constrained locations (like Greenland and the poles).

  8. We’re already doing 100% renewable Microgrids here at Sol Lux Alpha!, … this project we did without the added (coming) efficiency of full DC direct systems.!/view/85159/sol-lux-alpha

    Our Carbon Zero Living + Transportation System of development barely even impacts or interfaces with the Grid, an can disconnect entirely if needed or desired… No “Grid wobbling” here at all. Stable, reliable UPS, 100% powered by site based Renewable Energy. A community of our and other N+E structures combined with community solar and wind projects can export excess generation to the local Microgrid, and/or import community energy as needed to also power mobility and infrastructure.

    Bi-Drectional EV’s will be soon be capable of being used as mobile community energy generators, storing energy from multiple R.E resources for use anywhere needed… mobile energy assets for natural disasters and other emergencies.

    We intend for our next gen projects to be AC/DC hybrids. Major appliance makers do not yet have “market acceptable” DC appliances for the high end projects my team develops and my customers demand. It would be great if Robert Bosch, who’s doing a great deal of DC research, can team up with Bosch Home Appliances and accomplish this! 🙂 Then we’ll go all DC-DC, with some “backup” dual AC/DC plugs here and there… These will be the buildings, communities, cities, and regions of the future. ALL powered by 100 % Renewable Energy Microgrids.
    -John Sarter


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