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E+I Engineering explores the role of microgrids in critical power management.

A microgrid is a local energy grid that consists of multiple interconnected loads and distributed energy sources, which can range from renewable sources such as wind and solar to non-renewables such as fossil fuel generators. Microgrids are broadly categorised into two options; grid connected, which works in tandem with the traditional power grid or; off grid, where the microgrid autonomously controls the power supply to the electrical loads. Although both options improve power availability, they are suitable in different situations.

Microgrids provide increased control over power generation, making it possible to choose the best times to consume, store and sell energy from each distributed energy source. In turn improving power sustainability in terms of availability, environmental impact and cost.

Power availability 

Traditional power grids are becoming strained as they try to keep up with increasing demand for energy. This presents a serious problem for mission critical organisations such as data centres, hospitals and airports that rely on access to 24/7 uninterrupted power to operate efficiently, with unplanned outages compromising revenue and potentially lives.

Grid connected microgrids offer mission critical organisations additional support when inefficiencies or outages occur in the main power grid. Microgrid technology can detect impendent disruptions in the power grid and leverage energy from more stable sources until issues in the main grid have been resolved. This ensures faster system response and recovery to keep power running 24/7. This solution is often a necessity in developing countries, where national power infrastructure is poor and requires frequent support to meet power demands.

Off-grid microgrids are common in remote areas where the traditional grid is out of reach. Applications may range from remote military bases or industrial sites to entire Islands or villages where the microgrid provides power to vital community services.

Environmental sustainability

As data consumption increases globally, more power is required to process it and as a result, the carbon footprint of data consumption is increasing at an exponential rate.

In fact, when the music video for Despacito reached 5 billionn views on YouTube in 2018, the energy consumed was equivalent to powering 40,000 US homes for a year!

As the concern for environmental sustainability grows, pressures from government organisations and consumers are driving mission critical organisations to look towards renewable energy sources for power generation.

Although this shift towards renewables is a positive step for climate change, it does not come without barriers.  One of the main barriers to mainstream adoption of renewables for mission critical power generation is stability. Wind and solar don’t run on a steady rate 24/7, so what happens when the power dips? This is where microgrids fit into the equation.

Grid connected microgrids can be used to support renewable energy penetration by removing reliability concerns. By utilising renewables as the primary power source, backed up by the traditional grid, mission critical organisations can reduce their carbon footprint with the assurance that renewable power dips will be counteracted by switching power generation back to the traditional grid until stability is restored.

Financial sustainability

Whether it’s a hospital or data centre, the bottom line of any organisation is financial sustainability and with energy prices on the rise, this is becoming an issue for mission critical organisations. In addition to providing a more reliant and greener means of power generation, microgrids also come with a cost benefit. Despite the initial investment required to put microgrid infrastructure in place, the ability to leverage renewables can cut energy bills significantly. 

Many governments now offer green initiatives to increase penetration of renewables, so organisations could see themselves receiving tax breaks and subsidies if they factor renewables into their microgrid. These incentives can make a huge difference in the cost of implementing a microgrid.

An added benefit of grid connected microgrids is that the excess power generated from your renewable sources can be stored in the microgrid and then sold off to the main power grid. This new revenue stream can balance out the impact of high energy rates from utilities to improve financial sustainability.

Is mission critical power ready to go off the grid completely?

In short, the answer is no. In the current climate resilience should not come at the expense of clean energy goals. Despite microgrids having a positive impact on sustainability across the globe, we still have a long way to go before off-grid solutions can provide both environmental sustainability and mission critical reliability in the same instance. 

Additionally, greater expertise in the area is required before off-grid power will become a mainstream solution. The architecture of a microgrid can be quite complex and as most vendors are accustomed to selling standalone products and services, the prospect of taking on an integrated microgrid project can be quite daunting. Likewise, the benefits of microgrids are often not realised by potential customers and if many vendors are not yet keen to sell the concept, customers are not likely to trust in the solution.

The IEA estimates that by 2030, over 71% of new electricity connections will be off-grid solutions, but will mission critical power generation ever go completely off-grid?

Whilst its difficult to determine if off-grid power generation will ever be sustainable as a standalone solution for mission critical applications, the industry is definitely moving towards a more decentralised approach as the goal of clean and reliable power continues to drive the adoption of microgrids.

 

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