As a result of climate change’s increased and more severe storms and natural phenomena, weather-related power outages continue to grow across the world. In fact, between 2010 to 2019, the U.S. experienced 70% more power outages than in the previous decade. Given our increasing reliance on electricity, we will continue to require more reliable, clean and robust means of generating and distributing electricity.

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Contrary to popular belief, it is not due to the nature of renewables nor the capacity of large-scale electrical energy plants that cause the majority of power disruptions. These electrical outages are most often caused by failures of the wires-based distribution system that delivers most of the energy to homes and businesses. This usually occurs during storms and natural disasters. But how can these outages be prevented? Microgrids have demonstrated to be a climate-resilient and reliable solution for a new electrical energy system.

Related: Tesla-backed startup is powering a microgrid in Africa

A landscape of powerlines

What are microgrids?

Microgrids are localized clusters of energy resources. They operate independently and allow buildings to receive continuous electricity even if the central grid or “macrogrid” fails. Historically, microgrids used fossil fuel-based resources to generate energy for electricity. Nowadays, these plants are leveraging sustainable energy sources, such as solar power and hydroelectric energy, to provide power.

Types of microgrids

Depending on who the microgrid serves and its mode of operation, it can be classified as one of several categories. Some of the most popular types of microgrids are described below.

Microgrids categorized by customers

Remote microgrids serve remote locations such as an island or rural areas. These usually are not connected to a macrogrid.

Community microgrids typically serve critical facilities in a community. These can include critical buildings or spaces, such as emergency response centers, government buildings, shelters, grocery stores and fueling stations. These microgrids may also extend to other non-critical spaces like homes and offices.

Campus microgrids serve multiple buildings on a single plot. These include those that power educational facilities or medical centers.

Microgrids categorized by mode of operation

Grid-connected microgrids are connected to the central power grid. However, they can function independently of the macrogrid when the need arises.

Hybrid microgrids combine renewable energy sources with fossil-fuel resources. They are very versatile, as they maximize power-production efficiency.

Mobile microgrids are small, transportable microgrids that can be moved to different locations and are easily set up and taken down.

Advanced microgrids use advanced technology, controls and even artificial intelligence to manage multiple energy sources simultaneously.

Why are macrogrids insufficient?

Electricity has become essential for us to survive and prosper in today’s world. However, the central electrical grid often faces disruptions from climate change-induced factors.

In the last 10 years, hurricanes and storms have caused significant damage to power infrastructure. For example, in 2017, Hurricane Maria caused Puerto Rico to experience the largest blackout in U.S. history as the entire central grid was destroyed. This caused some households to be left without electricity access for over a year. In the western states, the grid has also been shut off to prevent electrical wire sparks from starting wildfires. These disruptions could continue for over a decade.

Besides natural phenomena, extreme temperatures can also disrupt the power supply. Extreme heat in the summer of 2020 led California to experience rolling blackouts, while in February 2021, Texas’ extremely cold temperatures disrupted the electrical grid. In fact, had the situation worsened, the entire Texas grid would have collapsed entirely. This could have left the state without power for weeks, if not months.

However, outages are not just inconvenient. Depending on the circumstances, they can also lead to injury or even death. When heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems do not function as required, people can experience severe hypothermia or heat stroke. If the power supply is disrupted at hospitals, this can impact the efficacy of medical equipment for those that require extreme or urgent care.

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The benefits of microgrids

Microgrids are a versatile alternative to central power grids for a few reasons. Besides being extremely reliable, they can serve local communities that may not have access to the main power grid. This allows people in these areas to keep up with modern technologies and systems without having to rely on little to no power from the macrogrid. This way, less developed and/or rural communities are empowered to grow sustainably by adopting technology and systems that are safe and reliable, despite their socio-economic backgrounds and location of residence.

Unlike macrogrids that typically use one main power source, microgrids are able to integrate multiple sources of power (including the macrogrid) to provide electricity to local communities. This has multiple advantages.

Firstly, it reduces strain on the main grid, which can lessen costs and power outages that result from high electricity demands when supply is low. Secondly, multiple sources of power prevent over-reliance on a single resource. This way, in an emergency or disruption of a particular source, other systems can step in to provide a continuous, uninterrupted power supply. Finally, microgrids make good use of renewable energy sources. These include solar, wind and hydroelectric energy. Using these power sources reduces carbon emissions and is more sustainable in the long term.

Microgrids can also be highly advanced and integrate software intelligence. This allows for a controlled approach to aptly manage the needs of their customers. Based on the needs of the space(s) that relies on the microgrid, the system can be custom-built to best suit electrical requirements. This allows for reduced costs in the long term as power goals are met exactly without the one-size-fits-all costs from the central grid. Additionally, because the grids are flexible and customized, they can be quick and easy to set up and/or transport as required.

The drawbacks of microgrids

Like any other system, microgrids do have drawbacks. While they are not a new innovation, they are only just beginning to be used on large scales to meet electrical energy requirements for towns and campuses. Hence, companies are slowly building up system. This is because combining multiple energy technologies for customized systems can be quite complex. These complexities make it difficult for utility companies as there are only a few microgrid experts currently. Furthermore, risk-averse investors will prefer more stable investments and may not wish to spend their money on complicated, under-researched systems.

Microgrids also have regulatory challenges. One such example is cybersecurity and access to personal information. Another includes laws regarding risks that result from implementing microgrid technologies and how restrictions and costs will be regulated after systems are set up. Furthermore, since laws vary by state or country, each locale will be required to create its own legal conditions for microgrid systems.

Should we make the switch?

As microgrid technologies are further developed in the coming years, it will make sense to adopt these systems because of their plethora of benefits. As more research is conducted, challenges and costs pertaining to microgrid systems will drop. This way, they may serve as sustainable, affordable alternatives to the unreliable central grid systems currently in place.

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