What is a microgrid?

The traditional electricity distribution model can be viewed as a “macrogrid,” using a large centrally located power station to provide electricity over an extensive service territory.  This model was designed during the early days of electrification with the objective of providing affordable and reliable power to as many customers as possible.  However, with technological advancements, a localized microgrid may provide the multiple benefits of grid resiliency and cleaner, more efficient energy production and distribution.  Regarding resiliency, the microgrid may be able to disconnect or “island” from the macrogrid, minimizing and isolating blackout incidents and providing for power redundancy.  Concerning energy efficiency, the microgrid uses local sources of energy to serve local loads, reducing energy loss in transmission and distribution.  Additionally, this smaller grid can more easily deploy distributed energy resources (DER) such as solar energy and combined heat and power (CHP) to meet grid demand.

Why choose the push towards microgrids?

As stated above, microgrids provide the dual benefits of energy efficiency and resiliency.  Picture Superstorm Sandy in Manhattan, if downtown had the capability to island and maintain power notwithstanding the downed Con Edison station?  Or, perhaps, picture the upper east side of Manhattan being able to provide some power to the seven million people left without electricity?  Even the nation’s capitol is vulnerable, as demonstrated when a PEPCO transmission line recently took out power in downtown D.C., with power disruption affecting federal buildings including the White House Complex.  Not to mention, electricity can be saved by diminishing losses from long transmission.

Ok great! Why not build microgrids everywhere?

Currently, developers face uncertainties as there is not a clear policy or regulatory path in place, thus affecting the potential to obtain private financing.  Previously, we lacked the technological capability to deploy a variety of distributed generation (picture roof-top solar, a traditional combined heat and power station, and a small wind turbine working together in different locations) through a set of advanced, real-time controls to manage energy demand across the entire microgrid.  While the idea of a clean-tech microgrid is relatively new, the concept of a microgrid is not so new.  University campuses, military bases and some industrial parks have been operating them for years, maybe even decades, but all such grids are on a solitary campus with one stand-alone energy customer.  What is new is the desire to place microgrids throughout a utility grid system servicing commercial customers, perhaps in competition with the utility.  The potentially competitive relationship with the utility may be why we haven’t seen microgrids popping up everywhere, unless they are utility-sponsored.

What is the utility’s stake in microgrid adoption?

Where a third-party, non-utility provides electric generation and distribution to retail customers, the utility may have a lot at stake.  The traditional model always has been the use of a macrogrid, in which a solitary utility provides both the generation and distribution of electricity for a specified geographic area, their “service territory.”  Simplifying the regulatory terrain, utilities are heavily regulated in exchange for their exclusivity and must set rates through a proceeding before the state’s public service commission (PSC).  This is why electricity bills typically remain constant because change can only occur in a rate making proceeding.  Depending upon how the state set up its relationship with the utility (during the late 1800s or through some subsequent restructuring), the utility may own its right to exclusivity, making it very difficult for a state to change its laws.

Some states and their utilities have opened the market to multiple electricity generating entities and, for example, enabled solar providers such as SolarCity through third party roof-top leasing.  However, utilities have invested a great deal of capital in fixed wire distribution systems that physically connect your homes or businesses to electricity.  Microgrids would directly compete with such fixed wire distribution; therefore, utility resistance may be expected.  Depending upon the jurisdiction, fixed wire distribution may be the exclusive franchise of the utility.  However, some states, like New York with its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) docket, are seeking to modify the utility relationship, showcasing the vast differences in utility precedent by jurisdiction.

Are there other obstacles to microgrid adoption?

Lawmakers and public service commissions may need to realign their energy laws and regulations to enable the clean-tech microgrid.  For example, to make a private microgrid financeable, the developers will need to know approximately how many customers (ratepayers) they can lock into their grid.  Many states have competition laws that allow customers to choose their electric generation supplier.  This approach may disadvantage a financed microgrid, as customers may be able to switch providers.  Also, it is unclear what level of regulation microgrids will experience.  Are they utilities?  The common answer is most likely not, but the question remains: will there be any requirements in place to prevent rate spiking?  Another unknown, will the microgrid as a whole be able to net-meter to the macrogrid?  What will the interconnection procedures look like?  The list of uncertainties needs to be addressed to provide developers and financers with better clarity.

With all of these challenges, what is the future for microgrids?

There is accelerating momentum behind the push to deploy microgrids.  SolarCity already is offering a microgrid service to collaborate with municipalities and universities.  With more severe and unpredictable storms and increased vulnerability to cyber-attack, microgrids are becoming the next horizon for our energy future. Utility and policy concerns are surmountable as demonstrated by REV and the market restructurings that enabled competitive generation.  To gain a foothold, the microgrid revolution will take a tailored approach to local issues, and will be led by some pioneering developers, and, perhaps, a handful of forward-thinking utilities that are ready to capitalize on a new opportunity.