Reaping the benefits of microgrid power
As we continue through a period of volatility in energy supplies and prices, interest is growing in the benefits that microgrids can offer in parallel – and in some cases instead of – conventional power from the grid. Whilst the concept of a microgrid is nothing new, there is uncertainty over the role they play in the modern energy mix for organisations ranging from heavy industry to schools. Here, Kelly Cole, General Manager of Electric Power at Finning, explains where microgrids fit and discusses the common issues that businesses must often overcome to benefit from them.
There are, unhelpfully, several different interpretations of what constitutes a microgrid so first let’s define exactly what we mean by the term. The definition becoming more commonly accepted as interest grows is that to be classed as a microgrid an energy system must meet two criteria:
- It must be entirely self-sufficient and does not need to rely on any other source of power such as a national grid.
- It must serve a specific geographic footprint. For example, a manufacturing facility, data centre or hospital.
There are several important benefits from using an energy system of this type. Where high levels of resilience are needed to ensure consistent power, a self-contained microgrid can often be the most effective option given the control an organisation has over what energy is generated, when and how. This might be for remote communities who do not have reliable access to power, or a business where high standards of reliability are key to their operations.
The precise mix of energy sources can be tailored for specific requirements, blending renewables with traditional sources where needed to reduce carbon emissions without compromising supply. Ultimately, these factors mean that it is possible for microgrids to provide a more sustainable and lower cost supply of energy than that which might be obtained through a national grid. Although of course energy from this source can still be used in parallel with a microgrid where required.
But as an evolving form of energy generation, there are challenges in how an organisation can ensure they are able to install and benefit from a microgrid design that properly meets their needs. The driver for many of these is the diversity of technology that can potentially be used.
The original microgrids were traditional generators powered by diesel and whilst the concept has expanded to encompass the likes of wind and solar renewables, CHP technology and other fuel sources, generators remain the bedrock of many microgrids. This is due to the sheer reliability of this established technology – whilst renewable sources may provide the bulk of the energy generation, they can be unreliable and require a consistent method to bridge any gaps in power.
Those seeking to design a microgrid need to ensure that they have the correct control system format defined from the outset. Whilst centralised control systems mean that all components in the grid are consolidated into one interface, there are risks with this format in that one failure has the potential to disable the whole system. Therefore, in many cases a distributed control system is selected as despite the potentially higher costs resilience is increased.
There are not yet many industry standards in terms of microgrid design and in some countries navigating relevant regulations can also be a complex task. This makes it important to partner with an organisation that can bring experience in successful microgrid installations elsewhere. With the right partner in place, microgrids can offer a highly reliable, cost-effective and sustainable energy source.
To find out more about the work Finning is doing to drive the energy transition, visit their content hub at FINROCK: https://finrock.live/sustainability-zone