Author | M. Martínez Euklidiadas
Local energy production and distribution grids are becoming widespread as families, groups of residents or entire town councils choose to create their own power generation, distribution and consumption grids, often with the aim of creating a neighborhood or community or being more sustainable.
This breakthrough, which returns energy sovereignty to citizens and fosters generation near the consumption source, while taking away power from energy companies, is not without risks. Governance and agreements, deployment costs or numerous technological problems are just some of the challenges that have to be addressed.
What is a microgrid or energy island?
A microgrid, also known as an energy island, is a group of interconnected energy generation and distribution elements —that can connect or disconnect from the main grid— and which can work autonomously and independently when necessary. It is, for lack of a better definition, a way of generating energy for a small area from within that same small area.
When microgrids are integrated within larger grids, they help balance out regional or national systems, by balancing electricity loads produced in accordance with demand. And when they work independently, they supply entire communities, regardless of the quality of the regional electricity infrastructure.
This duality, its electrification and principles of energy sovereignty have made it the ideal future of the energy grid. When regional or national grids fail, residents can still use power and, if not, they can export it or share their resources. Although not everything is as easy as it may seem.
Will microgrids help with decarbonization?
Although they do not have to be decarbonized —a local energy grid could include centralized heating using natural gas— the easy installation of solar panels, modularity included, means that local energy grids are directly electrified from the start. This leads many neighbors related to the power they generate to abandon gas or fuel-based resources.
It is easy to understand why. If a local energy community has combined their roofs and installed a significant number of solar panels, or if a local school has granted its roof to do the same, it is more cost effective for residents to change their gas cooker to an induction hob. And the same applies to changing gas boilers for aerothermal systems.
Electric mobility is slower and more complicated, given the cost of acquiring electric cars but, when a family decides to buy a vehicle within a microgrid, there are more likely to choose an electric vehicle and even an electric vehicle shared by the community.
Local electric energy systems as a resilience strategy to combat the vulnerability of electrification
Most developed countries today have various combined energy systems. These are generally the power supply and an infrastructure that transports natural gas to ports, factories, central heating units or homes (including transporting gas by road). However, as they become electrified, the gas and fuel network is withdrawing to make way for the power grid.
This increases energy vulnerability. A home with electricity and gas can be heated even if one of the supplies is interrupted, but in a home in which there is only electricity, a smart energy system is required that protects the home in the event of general power supply interruptions. For example, associated with storms. This system may be microgrids, which operate at a local level even if the regional or national grids experience issues.
Energy sovereignty can also be achieved with microgrids
Energy companies are some of the most powerful companies in the world, often to the extent that they influence governments and countries. For more than a century, their activities and lack of environmental awareness has caused and worsened the current and future environmental crisis, and it is doing so to the detriment of users, who are clients of a system which (yes, provides them with electricity at night) but which is the cause of all sorts of social, economic and environmental problems. Can microgrids help?
The reality is that neighborhood and municipal microgrids could be seen to be slowly but surely gnawing into energy companies in the form of citizens aware of the need to change a model which provides them with greater autonomy, that allows them to become their own energy producers (of electricity in this case) and a model that protects their energy sovereignty with energy islands based on democratic values and citizen participation and which reduces the dependence of families on large companies with which they do not share objectives.
Are microgrids the Holy Grail of electric power distribution?
Electric microgrids are a welcome technological and, more importantly, social innovation, but they are not the universal remedy for energy or electric power systems. In fact, one of the advantages of the existing systems is the transportation of large quantities of energy via a robust, functional and optimized grid. It is true that transporting energy from one place to another produces losses, but it is also true that managing a few thousand microgrids instead is inconvenient for personnel.
Often, we talk about microgrids from a technological perspective, often hearing the term ‘smart microgrids’, which includes semi-automated management through innovative systems like artificial intelligence. But it is human management, getting neighbors and communities to agree with one another, that is the greatest challenge with these types of small-scale distribution grids.
For example, Community A creates an internal microgrid with Community B, which creates another. Both border with Community C, which depends on the regional grid. While Community A chooses partial self-consumption without cutting ties with the regional grid, Community B extends its local grid and literally cuts ties with electric connections, creating barriers for transporting energy to Community C, which does not benefit from Community A either, since it does not have any surplus energy.
Managing these particular features in which each microgrid is completely different to all the other microgrids, not only requires new technology, but also community self-organization methods and citizen participation, contract models or licenses describing how to share energy between hubs. Because hyperlocal growth is complicated and requires agreements.