Imagine a neighborhood that is completely self-sufficient, all its members having their energy needs met through cooperation and sharing. Sound like a fantasy?
Well this scenario is actually real and the secret is called microgrids. It's becoming more common for communities to declare their independence from larger energy grids so they can have more control over pricing and achieve true independence and resilience on a local level.
This article discusses community microgrid basics, from the reasons for their increased popularity to their components and applications – as well as an introduction to how to join one.
The benefits of community microgrids
To understand a microgrid, you first have to understand how the traditional grid functions. The grid connects homes and businesses to a central power source. This is the source of energy that enables us to operate appliances, heating/cooling systems and electronics.
A conventional electricity network ("the grid") is comprised of three main components:
- energy consumers (homes, businesses, etc)
- the ‘poles and wires’ (the electricity delivery infrastructure)
- large-scale power plants (coal, gas, wind, nuclear, hydro)
However, if there is damage due to a storm or other natural disaster, it can impact the availability of energy to everyone on that energy grid.
This is where a microgrid makes all the difference.
A microgrid is a local energy grid that can separate from the established grid and function independently. Its size can range from four houses with solar panels and batteries to an entire community, town or island with a dedicated generation plant of its own. Most times a microgrid operates while connected to the grid but is able to operate on its own via local energy generation. This is vital in times of crisis like when a community is hit by a significant storm or power outage.
Among other things, a microgrid can be powered by a renewable resource like solar panels, and it can often operate indefinitely. It also helps cut energy costs by offering savings and discounts to the members in the local community. Ultimately, a microgrid allows communities to be more energy independent and environmentally friendly.
And microgrids are gaining in popularity throughout the United States. In 2016 the US microgrid market was over $550 million and GTM Research’s 2018 forecast predicts that the market's cumulative capacity will hit 7.1 GW by 2023. They report that supportive state policies, interest from utilities and energy companies and more streamlined adoption processes are the cause of this growth.
The role of solar and battery storage
Another cause for increased interest and development of microgrids is the rise of affordable small-scale renewable energy – specifically rooftop solar. It is now possible for almost any homeowner to affordably meet at least a portion of their energy needs independently of the electricity grid and large-scale power plants.
As battery storage prices go down, households are better able to take energy matters into their own hands. Once the battery is charged and major energy loads are run, often a household does not need all the electric energy that their solar panels have generated.
Energy independence while sharing with community
Contrary to the traditional grid, community microgrids place focus on individuals as active participants instead of passive consumers. They allow homeowners or businesses connected to the grid with solar and battery storage to participate in the market in ways that benefits them on an individual level. A good example is spot price trading, the ability to selectively export solar or stored energy when the energy trading market is at its peak.
Additionally, when connected to a local microgrid, excess energy a member produces with their solar + storage system can be bought and shared within the microgrid, making them an active participant reaping the financial benefits.
There are a number of ways to join a solar microgrid. One is to convert an existing community solar installation into a microgrid. Another, the most convenient and effective scenario, is to have the microgrid capabilities built into a community solar project design when it is built.
Monitoring and control
One of the early obstacles to microgrid development was the inability to
effectively monitor and control energy generation and consumption on the
micro (e.g home, business) level.
naak has helped solve this problem by introducing the carbonTrack smart
hub to the US market. It provides a secured command and control platform
that monitors and controls energy production and consumption. It controls when energy is used for major electric draws (e.g air conditioning, pool pump), when it is sent to the battery, and when it is shared with the microgrid.
This ability to control and optimize energy usage, coupled with the independence and reliability offered by a community microgrid, is a potent combination for homeowners and businesses seeking affordable green energy.