Microgrids: An idea whose time has come?

A microgrid on the Blue Lake Rancheria reserve in California

Blue Lake Rancheria)

As the global population grows, so does the demand for electricity. But there are challenges, even now. More than a billion people around the world don’t have access to power grids. According to the Canada Energy Regulator, 200,000 people in Canada are not connected to the North American electrical grid and natural gas distribution pipeline systems.

We’re also seeing natural disasters and major weather events disrupt power supply, causing mass blackouts for days at a time. And when one part of the transmission system breaks down, it can paralyze the whole grid.

Enter the microgrid. A concept that’s been growing in popularity, it’s a power system that can operate independently or work in connection with bigger grids.

A microgrid “contains everything that it needs to provide power to a community,” said Lynn Côté, cleantech lead at Export Development Canada. “You’re not building a system for a million people. You’re building a system for maybe a thousand people, 500, maybe 250.”

Big electrical grids connect buildings to central power sources, such as coal, nuclear and gas plants. When main components stop working, everything can be affected.

A microgrid operates as an island, which can be beneficial during times of crises like storms or outages (or for other reasons). Many are powered by a mix of renewable energy and batteries, with natural gas for backup. Microgrid power isn’t necessarily more reliable, but in communities far from a larger power source, microgrids can alleviate complications because the electricity is stored, owned and controlled locally.

One of the older examples is a microgrid built more than a decade ago in Sendai, Japan, which is powered by a mix of solar, gas and battery. According to Berkeley Lab, which does research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, during blackouts caused by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, the microgrid in Sendai provided power and heat to the teaching hospital of Tohuku Fukushi University.

“Widespread power outages cause a lot of social and economic damage and destruction. And the climate crisis is making all of this worse,” said Jana Ganion, energy director for Blue Lake Rancheria, an Indigenous reserve in California that launched a solar microgrid in 2015.

Millions of people in California had their power shut off last fall because of wildfire risk. Meanwhile, the Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid provided electricity to thousands nearby.

Setting up a microgrid can be an expensive undertaking, especially in dense urban or suburban areas with existing infrastructure. Consumers typically stick with what works, said Côté, and for the majority of Canadians, that means hydroelectric power (nuclear and coal are the next-biggest power sources).

“It’s really hard for certain countries to raise the kind of capital you need [to build a power plant],” said Côté, who has researched microgrids in remote Canadian communities. She said the “autonomy” a microgrid provides “is really important.”

There are nearly 300 remote communities across Canada, many of which rely on diesel-powered microgrids for electricity generation. Over the last decade, the federal government has worked with regional entities to create greener options.

In August, Gull Bay First Nation, north of Thunder Bay, Ont., co-developed a community microgrid that uses solar, battery storage and automated control technology to help reduce diesel use, according to Ontario Power Generation. It’s the first of its kind in Canada.

Côté said that in addition to making remote areas more self-sufficient, microgrids could help communities access clean drinking water by providing the power to treat it. SOURCE

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