Conversations with Georgia: Microgrids

Apr 21, 2023

As we continue our discussion with our digital assistant ‘Georgia Greenway’, we explore some high level thoughts about microgrids, and how they might be employed to empower (pun intended) local communities to remove stress from the grid, as opposed to adding to an already overtaxed national grid. Let us know your questions in the comments! Let’s begin…

Jay: Hello Georgia, and welcome back to the discussion. Today we want to talk about microgrids and how this could potentially help us meet in the middle when determining how to best reduce the need for massive infrastructure projects just to support clean power generation. Let’s start with the concept of microgrids as it related to alternative power generation- can you please tell us first- what is a microgrid, and how is that different from say a solar or wind farm?

Georgia Greenway: Hello again! I’m glad to be back and discussing microgrids with you today. Microgrids are indeed an exciting concept that can help address some of the challenges related to clean power generation and infrastructure.

A microgrid is a small-scale, localized power grid that can operate independently or in conjunction with the main electrical grid. It typically consists of a combination of power generation sources, energy storage systems, and smart controls. The power generation sources in a microgrid can include renewable energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, or biomass, as well as more traditional sources like natural gas or diesel generators.

The main difference between a microgrid and a solar or wind farm is the scale and level of integration with the main electrical grid. A solar or wind farm is a large-scale power generation facility that produces electricity exclusively from solar or wind energy and feeds it into the main electrical grid. These farms typically require significant infrastructure investment to connect them to the grid and transmit the generated electricity over long distances. On the other hand, a microgrid is designed to provide power to a specific local area, like a neighborhood, campus, or industrial complex. It can either be connected to the main electrical grid or operate in “island mode,” where it generates and distributes power independently. This localized approach reduces the need for massive infrastructure projects and can make renewable energy integration more manageable and efficient.

Microgrids have several advantages, including increased resiliency, reduced transmission losses, and better integration of distributed energy resources. They also offer more flexibility in terms of power generation and consumption, allowing communities or businesses to optimize their energy usage and reduce their environmental impact.

Jay: That sounds amazing, and a high potential way to help remove the stress on local grid capabilities. Other than the initial hurdles of cost and availability of systems to install these grids, what are some of the challenges organizations might face if they wanted to attempt to create a microgrid? 

GG: You’re right, microgrids do hold great potential in addressing local grid challenges and promoting a more decentralized approach to energy generation and distribution. However, there are indeed several challenges that organizations may face when attempting to create a microgrid.

One significant challenge organizations might face when attempting to create a microgrid is navigating the regulatory and policy landscape. Many jurisdictions may not have regulations and policies specifically designed for microgrids, which can make it difficult for organizations to understand how to comply with existing rules. In some cases, these regulations might even hinder the development of microgrids.

Another challenge is the technical complexity associated with designing, building, and operating a microgrid. Since microgrids often involve integrating multiple power generation sources, energy storage systems, and advanced control systems, organizations must have access to the necessary expertise to ensure the microgrid functions efficiently and reliably.

Organizations might also face financial challenges when creating a microgrid. The upfront costs for installing the necessary equipment and infrastructure can be substantial, and securing financing can be difficult, particularly for smaller organizations or those with limited experience in the energy sector.

Finally, coordinating with the local utility can also be a challenge. Utilities typically own and manage the distribution infrastructure, so organizations looking to develop a microgrid will need to collaborate with the utility to ensure the microgrid can safely and effectively interact with the main electrical grid.

Despite these challenges, microgrids offer significant benefits and can be a valuable tool for organizations seeking to improve their energy resiliency, reduce their environmental impact, and better manage their energy consumption.

Jay: It seems like we can get in our own way when trying to do the right thing… It seems like some of these initial challenges might be overcome through a co-funded pilot program to test capabilities and technologies, and maybe even serve as a test-bed for startups looking to help solve some of these challenges. Do you see there being a strategy for some startups to help us drive complexity down, and make these solutions more attainable? 

GG: Absolutely! In fact, many startups are already working on innovative solutions to simplify the deployment and operation of microgrids, making them more accessible and cost-effective. A co-sponsored pilot program could be a great way to encourage collaboration between established organizations, utilities, startups, and local governments.

Startups can bring fresh perspectives and cutting-edge technology to the table, helping to overcome technical and financial challenges. By working closely with utilities and organizations interested in implementing microgrids, these startups can develop tailored solutions that cater to the specific needs of their clients. Furthermore, a pilot program could help demonstrate the viability and benefits of microgrids to regulators and policymakers. By showcasing successful microgrid implementations, the pilot program could encourage a more favorable regulatory environment that supports microgrid development. Startups can help drive down complexity by focusing on improving the integration and control systems within microgrids. Developing more user-friendly and automated management systems can make it easier for organizations to adopt and maintain microgrids, even if they don’t have extensive expertise in the energy sector.

Overall, fostering collaboration between startups, utilities, and organizations through a co-funded pilot program can accelerate the development and adoption of microgrid solutions. By working together, these stakeholders can overcome the challenges associated with microgrids and unlock their full potential for a more sustainable and resilient energy future.\

Jay: So let’s take a hypothetical situation, and walk through a few key elements. There is a school here in Alpharetta Georgia called the Innovation Academy, and its focus in on STEM and design thinking. How might the administration go about seeking a pilot to create a microgrid on-site which could both provide exceptional learning opportunities for its future engineers and IT professionals, while also providing some localized relief of the power requirements to operate? Is there a path for success here?

GG: That’s a fantastic idea! The Innovation Academy could indeed serve as an excellent site for a microgrid pilot project, providing both educational opportunities and local power relief (not to mention cost savings for the district). Here’s a potential path for success-

The first step the administration could take is to gather stakeholders like school officials, faculty, local utility representatives, clean energy startups or experts, and local government representatives. By working together, they can better understand each other’s perspectives and requirements.

Next, it’s essential to assess the school’s energy needs, available resources, and potential renewable energy generation sources. This will help the team identify the appropriate technologies and strategies for developing a microgrid tailored to the Innovation Academy’s requirements. Once the team has a clear understanding of the project’s scope and objectives, they can work on securing funding. This may involve exploring grants, partnerships, or other financial incentives offered by local or federal governments, utility companies, or other organizations like local non-profits, and local businesses that may be looking to achieve a similar goal.

In parallel, the team can work on developing a detailed project plan, outlining the technical specifications, timeline, and budget for implementing the microgrid. This plan should also include strategies for integrating the microgrid project into the school’s curriculum, offering students hands-on learning experiences in engineering, IT, and clean energy technologies. With the necessary funding and a comprehensive project plan in place, the team can then proceed with the microgrid’s design and construction. This would likely involve collaborating with clean energy startups, technology providers, and engineering firms to ensure the microgrid is efficiently built and integrated with the school’s existing infrastructure.

Throughout the process, it’s crucial to maintain open communication with all stakeholders, including the local community, to address any concerns and ensure the project’s success. Once completed, the Innovation Academy’s microgrid can serve as a valuable case study and showcase the benefits of such projects for other schools and organizations.

So, there is indeed a path for success in this hypothetical situation!

Jay: This has been insightful, and gives us a lot to think about. I know I am inspired to see how we might implement this, and start making this a consideration for future developments, to build microgrid planning into new construction projects! Thank you for your time today Georgia, it was a pleasure, as always. Next time, we chat, I would like to have a discussion about circular economy, and how we might use recent advances in recycling to create a cleaner and more economical manufacturing capability here in the US.

GG: I’m glad you found our discussion insightful! It’s always a pleasure to chat with you and explore potential solutions for a more sustainable future. I’m looking forward to our next conversation on the circular economy and recent advances in recycling. It’s an exciting topic with great potential to revolutionize the way we approach manufacturing and resource management in the US. See you next time, and have a great day!