From Diesel to DER

Addressing the Power Outage Challenge in 2016 and Beyond
By Michael Mock

Most of us have seen large standby generators, often diesel-powered, lurking behind a school, hospital or other facility where continuous, uninterrupted power is essential. Such systems were adequate a decade or so ago for the occasional temporary outage. They are not, however, sufficient to meet the demands of major power outages that, according to a recent report from the organization Climate Central, have increased ten times since the early 1980s.

Building resilience is taking on increased importance as the number of  extreme weather events  threatening our nation continue to grow (think Superstorm Sandy in 2012) and an aging and increasingly fragile electrical grid, which was recently given a grade D+ by the of  American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), becomes even more antiquated. Leading the resilience movement are numerous new technologies entering the marketplace to address these issues and keep buildings running when the grid goes down.

Collectively, these systems are known as Distributed Energy Resource (DER) technologies and include solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, clean running generators and battery storage. In addition to becoming cheaper and more efficient, these systems are increasingly interconnected thanks to improvements in software systems. So, in addition to an Internet of Things (IoT), we see the rise of an Internet of Energy.

Microgrids lead the DER movement and allow facilities to manage electrical loads and “islands” during man-made or natural grid interruptions. Not only can microgrids provide backup for traditional grids in case of emergencies, increasingly they are being used to cut costs and connect to facilities that are too small or remote for traditional grid use.

Acceptance of microgrids has been hampered by concerns for the storage capacity and reliability of batteries in times of extended power outages. Recent major advances in battery storage technology, described as “disruptive” by Tesla battery experts, are rapidly erasing this concern. The research firm GTM predicts the amount of battery storage will quadruple between now and 2019, from 220 to 880 megawatts.

Consider this: David Crane, CEO of NRG, the largest privately owned centralized energy generator in the US recently stated, “…the current command-and-control, centralized, one-size-fits-all wire and wooden pole system invented by Thomas Edison…is going to be quickly replaced with initiatives in the smart home with home solar, distributed generation, reliability solutions, microgrids, electric vehicle charging, and portable solar and energy storage products.”

Clearly, microgrids will play a major role in how energy is generated, stored and delivered as the nation moves toward a new energy paradigm focused on both energy savings and resilience.

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