There’s a Role for Renewable Fuels in Microgrids Today — and Increasingly in the Future

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David Lewis, vice president of alternative fuels for Ameresco, shares insights on how renewable fuels can be one of a variety of solutions used to achieve decarbonization goals.

renewable fuels

David Lewis, vice president of alternative fuels for Ameresco

We cannot deny the strain that extreme weather and climate events are placing on the electric grid — from Winter Storm Uri in Texas last winter and wildfires in California this summer, to severe storms knocking out power in my home state of Massachusetts in late October. This pressure has driven a nationwide surge of interest in increased energy resilience and reliability from organizations and communities of every shape and size.

Microgrids can take on many forms to deliver energy security. Their flexibility accommodates the “right” mix of distributed energy resources (DERs) and other components for each customer’s scenario. Achieving resilience can be a simple solution of solar panels on the roof with battery storage and a microgrid controller, but this is not the answer for everyone.

As the US sets aggressive decarbonization goals and local policymakers pass regulation to drive greenhouse gas emission reductions forward, it is imperative that we involve a variety of solutions — including renewable fuels — starting now, and increasingly in the future.

In the short term

While supplies of some renewable fuels are not yet at scale, sources of renewable natural gas and renewable diesel are currently available and being sold in the market. Landfill gas is among the most common and economic sources. Perhaps just as importantly, many businesses actually generate the raw materials needed to create their own renewable gas which could, in turn, be used to fuel on-site DERs such as generators or fuel cells.

Take, for example, dairy farmers, who are often seeking ways to deal with agricultural waste. This waste can be turned into renewable natural gas that can power a microgrid to make the dairy facility operation more resilient. The same story can be repeated in many other applications, such as wastewater treatment plants or food processing facilities.

In the medium term

Those cost-effective scenarios for deploying renewable fuel-powered microgrids may be somewhat niche today, but they’ll become less so in the medium-term future as carbon capture technology reaches maturity. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is no longer on the fringe. Major corporations are making multibillion dollar investments, and when — not if — these investments bear fruit, markets will have access to a significant supply of economic, decarbonized hydrogen. We are already very good at turning natural gas into hydrogen fuel. CCS is the missing piece of the puzzle to lessen the carbon impact while producing volume at scale.

In the long term

CCS is not the only pathway to low- and no-carbon hydrogen fuel, though. In the longer term, cost-effective electrolysis technology is on the way that will allow the economy to convert excess renewable electricity into zero-carbon hydrogen fuel. This clean fuel will not only be able to supply fuel cell-powered microgrids, but it will also help the electric grid as a whole balance renewable intermittency, creating systemwide reliability benefits.

For businesses considering a microgrid and that are already producing waste that could become a renewable fuel, the future of a renewable fuel-powered solution is now. The same can be said for those willing to pay a small premium for the supplies of renewable natural gas that are readily available today. Building our renewable fuel-powered microgrid future relies on additional innovation paired with economically rational policy support.

Not too long ago, critics loudly proclaimed that renewable energy resources like solar wouldn’t be economic for generations — if ever. They were proved wrong, thanks to significant policy support that helped push the technology quickly down the cost curve.

We need that same level of policy support for all forms of renewable fuels today. It cannot wait. When the economy starts to hit a decarbonization wall, electrification cannot be applied to every situation. We will need commercialized and economic renewable fuels at the ready — as their role will be critical in our net-zero future.

David Lewis is vice president of alternative fuels for Ameresco.

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