Microgrids and Grid Modernization

By Emily Rubymicrogrid

Microgrids are one of newest and hottest areas of interest in clean energy and distributed energy resources (DER), along with new renewable technology, storage, and efficiency.

A microgrid is a defined, smaller area of the overall grid that can independently run and maintain electrical power even if power from the overall grid fails. Thus, it can allow an area to remain functional even in the case of a black-out, which is greatly important if that area contains critical infrastructure like a hospital, military base, or police station. Microgrids are seen as a solution to achieve resiliency and reliability; in cases where power disruption comes with high cost and/or liability, this can be a worthwhile investment. However, microgrids can still be expensive to set up and their economic worth difficult to calculate.

In New York, an aging grid and the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy have elevated the viability of microgrids as an option in the discussion of clean energy and overall grid modernization. During Superstorm Sandy, microgrids that were already in place allowed power to be maintained at those sites, and/or were the first to have power restored. In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo started REV (Reforming the Energy Vision), a project to increase adoption of clean energy while fostering economic growth. The plan includes the $40 million NY Prize competition to develop community microgrids. The idea is to establish microgrid projects and find ways to lower costs.

New York is not the only area engaging in grid modernization. The Department of Energy has put forth a $220M Grid Modernization Plan to improve the nation’s power grid. This plan includes investment in research at the National Labs as well as outreach and guidance to governments and businesses. The goal is to fill in gaps in research and improve business strategies. The plan allocates $10 million for microgrid research and development. Other areas of needed research include sensors, inverters, and transformers, all to make the grid more stable and reliable.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, microgrid projects have been established and put to the test. The Santa Rita Jail relies on renewable energy and its own smart grid. Fully functional as of 2011, this site relies on solar panels as well as wind turbines for power, has storage for back-up and can effectively “island” itself from the grid. Alcatraz Island recently switched over to a renewable energy microgrid, eliminating the need for 31,900 gallons of fuel in 2013. This also saved $200,000 and 325 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. And in Sonoma County, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District is considering putting in a microgrid to take full advantage of their excess of solar electricity. Finally, Stone Edge Farm — a sixteen-acre vineyard, farm, and residence just outside the city of Sonoma — has begun an ambitious project to become self-sufficient with a renewables-based microgrid. Their microgrid will communicate with CAISO (California Independent System Operator) but will also be “islandable,” meaning, it will be able to function independent of the larger grid. Stone Edge Farm is serving as a testbed for several other cutting edge energy technologies include Tesla batteries, energy storage, and hydrogen fuel cells.


Modern microgrids are still in the early stages of development. As more cities, agencies, institutions, and businesses recognize the benefits of microgrids, we can look forward to costs dropping and deployment growing rapidly. This will surely provide long-term benefits including improved resiliency and stabilization of the grid, as well as dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases as the need for fossil fuel-powered electricity generation declines.

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