How solar-powered microgrids help communities around the world

Distributed energy resources, such as solar photovoltaic systems, are a novel means to provide usable electricity to areas currently underserved by utility companies. In addition, distributed energy resources also offer a clean alternative to the traditional, carbon-intensive national grid that currently delivers electricity to much of the country. These small-scale grids act as ideal backups for grid-connected installations that experience frequent power outages.

Most power companies operate an energy grid typically supplied by a range of sources, including coal, natural gas, wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, among others. However, these grids are massive pieces of infrastructure that require a substantial investment to construct. Further, due to their size, this infrastructure is not easily adaptable to new technology or shifting socioeconomic conditions.

International microgrids

For many people in the U.S., it can be difficult to envision a scenario where there are no utility companies around to deliver crucial daily necessities, such as electricity or water. However, this is the case in large swaths of the world, especially in emerging economies and even in remote regions of some developed nations. Without large utility providers building the miles of infrastructure in these areas to deliver crucial services, there are few other actors or agencies that can fill this gap.

Thankfully, distributed energy resources allow even the most remote communities to create a microgrid that utilizes renewable power sources, like a solar PV array. One of these isolated areas taking advantage of distributed energy resources includes the Azores island of Faial in the Atlantic Ocean, Microgrid Knowledge reported. With a population of 15,000, the tiny island established a self-contained microgrid that relies in large part on renewable energy.

Similarly, in the remote Western Australian towns of Marble Bar and Nullagine, the residents use a solar- and diesel-power microgrid, with close to 60 percent of their power coming solely from solar generation, the source noted. In addition to providing clean, renewable energy to this far-flung region, it also saves roughly 400,000 liters of diesel and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1,100 tons each year.

Not only does the introduction of microgrids into remote areas provide residents with clean energy sources, but it also boosts the overall productivity of the entire region. The source noted that in Barmer, India, an arid district with limited access to utility-scale power, a microgrid providing electricity to the residents resulted in a 50 percent and 40 percent increase in productivity for the local weavers and tailors, respectively. Now the employees are able to work at night and not expose themselves to the scorching daytime temperatures.

Domestic microgrids

While major utility providers throughout the U.S. have erected the infrastructure necessary to deliver services to even the most remote areas of the country, there are still many good reasons to create microgrids that take advantage of distributed energy resources, such as solar PV systems.

For example, the Houston Business Journal noted that the sprawling metropolitan area remains ripe for a surge in local microgrids. With booming population growth, the local utility companies are having a difficult time trying to expand their infrastructure and scale operations to handle the continuously increasing share of new residents to the region. As Houston's power usage has grown to accommodate the influx of people, it's put a strain on the electric grid at the distribution level. Further, the region is also notorious for extreme weather and flooding, which can lead to an interruption in service and leave the city vulnerable to an unstable power supply.

One way to remedy these problems is through the use of a microgrid connected to a variety of distributed energy resources. By selling rapid-response generation from the microgrids, Houston utilities can reduce the chances of a power outage during a major storm and also offset the daily fluctuations that arise across the entire grid. 

This is not limited strictly to Texas, either. In another example, an Ohio power company is petitioning for $52 million from regulators to build eight to 10 microgrids in Columbus, Ohio, GreenTechMedia reported. The company plans on installing these small-scale grids at critical facilities that always need power, such as hospitals, shelters, water plants and more. Not only will these microgrids provide a stable source of power during tumultuous storms or electricity outages, but the source also noted that the company anticipates the design to cut greenhouse emissions by 3,176 tons per year. In addition, the company said this project will improve reliability while integrating renewable energy generation for greater usage among the local residents.

Currently there are still many variables in the microgrid system that need to be addressed to create a more consistent pricing structure. The size of the microgrid, the number of end users connected to it and the area it serves all play a factor into how much the solar energy produced will cost the consumer and how much it will cost to operate the microgrid. However, while investors and utilities are trying to resolve these issues, it's not stopping anyone from moving forward with providing customers access to power off of microgrids.

No matter where a microgrid goes up - whether it's a lonely outpost in an inaccessible location or smack dab in the midst of a bustling urban center - when efficiently integrated with renewable distributed energy resources, they enhance system resiliency and create greater community stability for those using the power.

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