A new study suggests that microgrids – a rarity in today’s power sector – will evolve to become a “fundamental building block” of the 21st-century grid.
Used primarily to ensure reliability and access in military and other critical applications, microgrids have emerged in recent years as a niche interest for utilities and communities looking to bring more renewables online and increase resilience in the face of extreme weather. Despite the heightened profile, microgrids – islandable networks of generation and distribution – remain a small part of the U.S. energy system, making up a fraction of a percent of the nation’s total power generating capacity.
That is poised to change, according to a report released earlier this month by the National Electrical Manufacturing Association (NEMA), an industry group representing electrical, medical imaging, and radiation therapy manufacturers.
“[The grid is] moving away from a passive to an active grid,” said Steve Griffith, an industry director at NEMA. “You can actually have distributed generation based on renewable resources – solar, wind and electrical storage devices – power that not only flows from the utility to the customer, but now from the customer back to the utility.”
Microgrids help manage these reverse power flows by addressing the technical challenges of variation in voltage and frequency. It’s why NEMA envisions a future where microgrids play a foundational role in the way the broader power system operates, working in tandem with the existing power structure.
“From 2025 onwards, fully controllable, independent microgrids interconnected with [direct current] links will allow for full decoupling from the alternating current (AC) electric power system.” the report concludes. “They will also facilitate the segmentation of the distribution system, a new paradigm for electric grid management.”