Microgrids and Energy Storage are Mainstream and Environmentally Beneficial

by | Jan 24, 2018

When the power went out at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport at the start of last year’s holiday season, the lights went on inside the corporate boardrooms. That is, companies realized that if the world’s busiest airport could suffer a power outage, any enterprise would be vulnerable. What to do?

The country’s infrastructure is aging and businesses are susceptible to power outages. It can be the kind of thing that occurred in Atlanta, where a fire knocked out not just its its main source of electricity but also its ancillary sources. Or it could be from weather-related events, such hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes.

Some key technologies are now in the offing that might mitigate such events: on site generation that uses localized microgrids that are beefed up by energy storage. Consider microgrids, which can deliver power to a single building or an entire campus, either as its main source of power or auxiliary electricity if the main grid goes down: businesses can get a continuous flow of power even if there is a major weather event.

“If you have a highly centralized grid with a single large transformer that is taken out by high winds, electricity can still be generated at a smaller scale,” Guildo Jouret, chief digital officer for ABB, told this writer in an interview.

ABB, for example, has provided a microgrid system to integrate solar energy and supply power to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison during the apartheid era. Now a living museum, Robben Island had previously relied on fuel-thirsty, carbon-emitting diesel generators as the only source of electric power.

Essentially a small-scale electric grid, the new microgrid will substantially lower fuel costs and carbon emissions, enabling the island to run on solar power for at least nine months of the year, ABB said. As the main energy source, the microgrid will reduce carbon emissions and the fuel demands of the diesel generators, which previously required around 600,000 liters of fuel a year but now will serve primarily as a back-up.

Meanwhile, Jouret says that battery storage adds value because if there is a momentary lapse of grid power, the storage device can kick on instaneously and supply for minutes and hours, in some cases. That can ensure that business processes are not disturbed.

Consider the case of South Australia, where it has been a task to keep the lights on: Tesla installed a back up battery system there, which kicked in less than the second after the power went out. In this case, the batteries are soaking up excess energy.

So how does all this tie back into the Atlanta airport? A microgrid, for example, would act as an extension of the main grid. But it would have some on site generation and battery storage on site, says Jouret. So, if the main source goes down, the batteries take over. And shortly after that, the on site generators — which could be gas generators or renewable power — would start up.

“Nothing gets disrupted,” Jouret said. “After the batteries go into effect, the generation kicks in as long as there is enough enough fuel stored on site.”

Even more, he said that local generation enhanced by microgrids and battery storage improves the quality of power that businesses receive. Many businesses, for example, have processes that are sensitive to the rate of currents going back-and-forth, which should be 60-times per second, or at 60 hertz. If it drops, then it can disrupt companies and equipment can prematurely burn out.

Some forecasts say that the US economy loses more than $150 billion annually to power outages. They also erode customer satisfaction. As for the outage at Atlanta’s airport last December: about 1,000 flights were canceled for that one full day the airport was out-of-service, which affected millions of passengers — not to mention the range of businesses all tied to that travel like hotels.

For those reasons, along with the environmental benefits they bring, on site generation, microgrids and energy storage devices are making their way into the mainstream.

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