Finding grid security through microgrids

February 26, 2014

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Dr. Albert Bartlett, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, died last September. He was best known for his frequent presentations about the dangers of exponential growth: arithmetic, population and energy. Although annual changes may be small and appear insignificant, over time, they can lead to a doubling in population, energy use, and food and resource consumption.

When a council member in Boulder, Colo., suggested a population growth rate for the city of 5 percent per year, Bartlett wrote informing him that over 70 years, the population would grow 32 times as large as it was.
Likewise, incremental increases in local electrical grids could enhance overall energy security. Failures of the grid during the 2013-2014 winter have demonstrated the value of minigrids.

Dr. Roscoe Bartlett, a 20-year member of Congress, has concerns about the vulnerability of the electrical grid. While an advocate of limited government, he repeatedly called for federal action to protect the grid from collapse initiated by an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear weapon or a solar storm.

His concern for electricity is based on the fact that all critical infrastructure systems, including food, agriculture, water, sewer, transportation and emergency service are dependent on electricity.
While he achieved limited success in stimulating congressional interest in grid security, he spent his spare time developing an energy-efficient rural retreat for his family in the mountains of West Virginia. He was determined to be independent of the system, and relied on solar electricity with battery storage, wood heat and composting toilets.

Concerns about a prolonged failure of the electrical grid were depicted in last year’s program American Blackout, seen on the National Geographic Channel. In addition to a cyber attack, the grid could simply collapse on its own as a result of cascading failures moving though the aging system.

Bartlett is not alone in his quest for independence. The Ten Island Renewable Energy Challenge was designed to move islands away from exclusive fossil fuel dependence. Richard Branson is developing a renewable energy microgrid for Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands.

According to a research report by Navigant Research, remote microgrid capacity will more than triple by 2020 as they replace existing diesel-powered generators or provide electricity to sites without service. The report identifies commodity extraction, islands, village applications and remote military as key opportunities for microgrid installations.
The prospects for microgrid services are also expanding in areas already served by the grid. In many cases, they are seen as offering a measure of energy security from grid failures caused by natural events such as ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and breakdowns inherent in the aging electrical system.

States such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York City have created programs to stimulate microgrid installations.
Microgrids on the community level are seen as a means to increase reliability while giving communities more control over their energy services. The systems can integrate multiple renewable energy sources and provide an opportunity to stimulate the adoption of electric vehicles.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail: sonia@essex1.com.

From the Feb. 26-March 4, 2014 issue

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