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  • Sarah Lozanova

What Is A Microgrid?



What Is A Microgrid?


Power outages due to severe weather are on the rise. An aging power grid and an increase in extreme weather events are causing more frequent blackouts. Innovative technologies and approaches can be useful in promoting a reliable power supply. In particular, microgrids can help mitigate the impacts of extreme weather on households and businesses by ensuring a more reliable energy supply.


A microgrid is a local electrical grid with clear boundaries that can act as a single, controllable entity. It can function in “grid-connected” or “island” mode, depending on the circumstances and setup. Stand-alone microgrids or isolated microgrids are not connected to a larger power grid.


These microgrids are most common in remote locations, such as islands or mountainous regions, or areas prone to natural disasters. Microgrids rely on fuel cells, solar panels, wind turbines, battery storage, natural gas or diesel generators, and other alternative energy technologies to produce or supply electricity.


Let’s explore solar microgrids and how they work to understand when they are a good option for your clients.


What Is A Solar Microgrid And How Does It Work?


Most solar PV panel systems are grid-tied, and therefore even most homes with solar systems don’t have electricity during blackouts unless they also have battery storage. This is because National Electrical Codes require solar power systems to shut down to protect the safety of line crews working to restore power.


However, solar microgrids can operate independently of the larger grid so that these homes can have electricity, even during power outages. This concept is called “islanding” and means the microgrid disconnects from the larger grid when beneficial. Once unfavorable conditions pass, the microgrid project can reconnect to the utility grid, becoming “grid-connected” again.


Although microgrids can use a variety of fuel sources, a solar microgrid is powered by solar energy. Some renewable energy microgrids use a variety of complementary technologies, such as wind energy, hydropower, and other renewable energy sources. Microgrids range in size from one household with a solar system and battery bank to hundreds or thousands of homes and businesses.


Because solar is an intermittent power supply, most solar microgrids have battery banks. Energy storage systems have advanced in recent years, and prices have fallen, making them more feasible and economically viable. Often solar microgrids qualify for federal solar tax credits and other incentives that can reduce the total system cost.


Note that community solar farms are not necessarily microgrid systems, although they can be designed as such. Most community solar projects are connected to the grid and are not designed to go into “island mode.”


Where Can We Use Solar Microgrids?


There are several communities or groups that can really benefit from solar microgrids.

  • Isolated rural areas, such as islands or mountainous areas that are far from utility infrastructure, can create microgrids that are not connected to the main grid. This enables these areas to have power despite a lack of available infrastructure. This is an appealing option in some developing countries in Africa and India.

  • Police stations, fire stations, hospitals, schools, and other critical services and organizations can create microgrids to ensure they have power during blackouts. Typically, these are grid-tied microgrids that can disconnect during outages.

  • Communities that are prone to natural disasters or power outages may choose to create a microgrid to ensure they have reliable backup power despite hurricanes, public safety power shutoffs, severe storms, tornados, heat waves, utility equipment failure, etc.

It is often feasible to expand microgrids by adding additional solar panels and batteries. This helps them to be more adaptive to changing community needs. For example, if the population or energy use of an island increases, it can expand its capacity to serve more households and businesses.


What Are Some Benefits Of Solar Microgrids?


There are many advantages of using microgrids to get the most out of solar energy systems.


Solar Power During Blackouts For Energy Independence


Unfortunately, most grid-tied photovoltaic systems without batteries do not work during grid outages. Therefore, solar energy isn’t available when it is needed most. One way to sidestep this issue is by creating a microgrid.


When in ‘islanding mode,’ the microgrid can run off of solar electricity as needed. This ability promotes resilience and can even encourage economic activity with a reliable power supply.


Advantages Of Being Connected To The Electric Grid


There are some benefits of being connected to the utility grid. For example, solar homeowners in areas with net metering laws are compensated at a retail rate for surplus solar electricity they supply to the grid. Without the utility grid or batteries, surplus electricity can be wasted.


Clean Energy Production For Greater Sustainability


Solar panels produce no emissions and are therefore instrumental in minimizing climate change. Solar microgrid energy solutions help promote clean energy use and decrease the use of polluting fossil fuels as a power source.


Are There Limitations To Microgrids?


Although microgrid systems are an excellent option in some circumstances, they aren’t always a slam dunk. Unfortunately, local, state, and federal regulations can sometimes deter microgrids.


Likewise, implementing this approach can be costly, especially if there aren’t government or utility incentives to help defray the costs. Adding a battery bank can be expensive. And there can be technical challenges that make microgrids difficult to create.


Also, it is difficult to rely on a solar microgrid in areas with poor solar resources. Shading and excessive amounts of cloudy weather make the payback period longer.


The Bottom Line: Solar Microgrids Have Great Potential For A More Resilient Energy Grid


Last summer was marked by record heatwaves across much of the country. As electricity consumption skyrocketed due to cooling system use, some households experienced blackouts. Microgrids create an opportunity for communities to be more resilient during natural disasters. In particular, solar microgrids also promote sustainability because they reduce the use of fossil fuels in power plants and standby generators.


GreenLancer is here to help. Contact us for assistance with your next solar microgrid project or solar installation.