As microgrids become more common across North America, advocates are calling for more emphasis on decentralized energy, while a recent reliability report warns of the larger grid’s susceptibility to widespread blackouts during winter weather.
“In the transition to a low-carbon economy, microgrids are now an attractive prospect with their ability to incorporate renewable energies, and survive natural weather disasters, helping keep lights on, countries in power, and consumers unaffected,” explains IT industry magazine Intelligent CIO (Middle East).
Microgrids are essentially small grid systems that use one or more distributed energy sources to provide power independent of the larger grid. North America accounted for 35% of global microgrid revenue share in 2022, though the systems only contributed 0.3% of U.S. electricity. Still, microgrid capacity has grown by 11% over the last four years and there are more than 460 operational microgrids in the U.S. that provide 3.1 gigawatts of reliable electricity to their communities.
There is some discussion on whether microgrids can contribute much to sustainability if they are simply smaller versions of a larger, unsustainable grid. Intelligent CIO argues that their promise stems from their decentralization, which allows them to function more efficiently—as they don’t lose energy when transmitting over long distances—and more flexibly in response to grid stressors.
“Technology that is flexible, agile, and responsive will provide invaluable support, and it is where microgrids, a composable system that allows systems to be assembled from smaller, independent components, will prove its worth in building resilience into the energy network,” the magazine says.
The push for microgrids comes as extreme weather and changing weather patterns threaten national grid systems that are less flexible, where problems in one locale can have widespread impacts on energy users in other areas connected to the system. Such threats are common during winter months, when cold and inclement weather can disrupt grid function even as demand for energy to power home heating is high.
In its annual winter reliability assessment [pdf], the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warned that “a large portion” of the North American bulk power system (BPS) is at risk of “insufficient electricity supplies during peak winter conditions,” adding that prolonged cold snaps over wide areas threaten the reliable performance of BPS generation and available natural gas-fired generation supplies.
Last year, NERC similarly cited the risk of insufficient energy supplies during peak winter conditions, noting that many areas were at risk because of “higher peak demand projections, [and] inadequate generator weatherization, fuel supply risks, and natural gas infrastructure.”
Experts say microgrids can make an important contribution to grid reliability. By diversifying the energy mix and incorporating renewable sources, they “contribute to a more robust and adaptable energy infrastructure, reducing the overall risk of supply inadequacy,” Nicole Bulgarino, executive vice president and general manager of federal solutions for Ameresco, told Microgrid Knowledge.
“In instances where electric heating systems drive up demand during freezing temperatures, microgrids can dynamically adjust their output to meet these surges,” he said. “This responsiveness helps mitigate the strain on the broader grid, preventing potential grid instability and ensuring a more reliable electricity supply.”