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Community microgrids are a way for neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities to meet their energy needs locally. Increasingly, community microgrids are being eyed as an option even in areas where a larger grid already exists, mainly as a way to increase local energy independence and resilience. This article covers community microgrid basics, from the reasons for their growing popularity to their components and applications – as well as an overview of how to join one.
In order to understand why microgrids are gaining popularity, it’s helpful to understand how larger electricity grids (‘macrogrids’) operate – and the forces that are currently at play in changing them. The points below detail the changes currently afoot in electrical systems around the world.
A conventional electricity network (AKA ‘the grid’) is essentially comprised of three things:
It is the size of the power plants and the distances that electricity travels (often hundreds or thousands of kilometres) upon which the ‘modern’ grid concept – now over a century old – is based. This has been the model for electricity grids since their creation about 100 years ago.
Diagram overview of how a conventional electricity grid works.
In recent years, however, a fourth component has begun to creep into conventional grids: small-scale distributed generation. Rooftop solar panel systems are the most noteworthy and common example of small-scale distributed generation.
The rise of affordable small-scale renewable energy – particularly rooftop solar – is revolutionising energy systems around the world. For the first time, it is possible for virtually any homeowner to affordably meet at least a portion of their energy needs themselves instead of relying wholly on the electricity grid and far-away, large-scale power plants. As battery storage prices come down, households become increasingly able – and likely – to take their energy matters into their own hands.
This doesn’t mean that we’re headed for an ‘every man for himself’ world of off-gridders hoarding their locally-produced energy like tinned goods in a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. While a good number of people may indeed end up going off the grid in the next decade, the vast majority are likely to remain connected for reasons of convenience, finance or limitations such as lack of roof space for solar panels.
There’s also the fact that each off-grid home will need redundant solar & battery capacity to make it possible for them to live off the grid. This is capacity that will by design sit idle for the vast majority of the time – making off-grid home energy systems larger and much more expensive than grid-connected ones. In the bigger picture of the electricity grid, this would seem to be a waste of resources for society at large, and hints at missed opportunities for the system owner as well.
Meanwhile, those who remain connected to the grid with solar & battery storage will see increasing opportunities to participate in the market in ways that benefit them on an individual level – a good example is spot price trading.
The grid will only get smarter as time goes on, dragged into the modern, digital era whether it wants to or not. Those who remain grid-connected will find more ways to save or earn money as utility business models evolve, with the most flexibility for the households that are energy producers as well as consumers.
Most electricity grids were at one point in time been government-owned public utilities, which were inherently monopolistic in their nature – they were the only option in the game. Although grids in many places have been privatised to allow for varying degrees of competition and customer choice, the inertia of their history often strongly influences the way that they operate even now – and change comes slowly.
As such, the ‘macrogrid’ is not always a place that is friendly to small-scale distributed generation. As an example, grid-connected solar & battery storage system owners – who not only consume energy from the grid but can also send energy into it – may find themselves being treated as ‘second class citizens’ in an environment that favours simple, straightforward (and more lucrative) ‘consumers’.
Community microgrids as an alternative
For those who dislike the existing system but love this idea of the interactive grid facilitated by existing infrastructure (including the idea of peer to peer energy trading), microgrids offer a middle path. As the name implies, community microgrids are small-scale versions of the grid as we know it, except that they are (ideally) smarter and put more focus on individuals as active participants instead of as passive consumers.
In effect, a community microgrid combines the advantages and resilience of the current grid system with the flexibility individual-centered nature of small-scale, distributed renewable generation – plus all the ‘smart’, digitised communications technology that has become commonplace in our daily lives.
According to Wikipedia, a microgrid is a ‘localised grouping of electricity sources and loads’ that may or may not be connected to a larger electrical grid. A microgrid could be as small as three houses with solar panels and batteries, or large enough to encompass a whole community, town, city or island with designated generation plants of their own. A good microgrid contains within it many of the redundancies and safeguards that make the modern grid so resilient and reliable, but on a smaller scale.
Microgrids may stand completely on their own as self-contained hubs or may be ’embedded’ inside existing infrastructure, allowing them to draw on mains power in times of short supply or sending/selling electricity back into the greater network/market in times of excess. In most cases, a microgrid will be purpose-built to serve as a microgrid, but in some instances they may be carved out of a pre-existing node on the larger grid.
Example of how a microgrid works. (Image via MicrogridInstitute.org)
Microgrids are built and deployed for a variety of reasons. They can be grouped into roughly five categories.
If you are interested in joining a community microgrid, you have one of the three options below.
Community microgrids are one of the most exciting concepts to have to have emerged in the distributed/renewable energy revolution. They present a unique, appealing, and (possibly) economical option for communities to take their energy matters into their own hands.
carbonTRACK can help
These days, it would be almost unthinkable to start up a community microgrid without the right modern, smart technology to make it work smoothly and seamlessly. If you’ve ever thought about joining a microgrid – or starting one up with your community or as a developer – get in touch with us to learn about how our technology can help both individuals and communities make the most of their energy.