Autonomous "microgrid" power trend accelerates

A market research firm is tracking a major increase in the number of autonomous "microgrids" in the United States, which function even when the overall power grid goes down.
Written by David Worthington, Contributor
A microgrid in Japan. (Image credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The United States has long been dependent on a system of monolithic power grids, and occasionally mass power outages have left entire regions in the dark. A new trend of "microgrids" - or decentralized power - could go a long way to prevent disruptive blackouts from happening again.

Microgrids function in much the same as a traditional power grid, and are normally connected to it most of the time. The major difference is that a microgrid can function autonomously if the regional grid goes down. Another difference is that Microgrids are cleaner, combining renewable power sources such as solar and wind with energy storage and transmission equipment.

A report published by clean energy market information firm Pike Research today highlights an expected 87 new microgrids either planned, proposed, or in current operation during 2012. That amounts to over 2,575 megawatts (MW) in capacity and a 54% increase over Pike's 4Q 2011 update.

In August, Pike's forecast was for 1.6 gigawatts of capacity by 2017. It has now revised its prediction upward to 2.5 gigawatts. Some of the early adopters are commercial, educational, healthcare campuses, and even prisons. Pike's "Microgrid Deployment Tracker" is keeping tabs on microgrids as they roll out.

Imagine the loss of economic activity if Manhattan were without power for a day or two. Times Square's economy rivals Portland. There's a potential economic advantage to decentralized generation, and microgrids should be considered as U.S. power demand grows, and power plants and transmission lines age.

Of course, there are many alternatives for power back ups including diesel fuel and cheaper natural gas. I'd wager that those will continue to be in the mix for some time. Microgrids are a rethinking of power distribution, and won't rule the roost overnight.

The idea of a hospital being able to function without fuel generators or major campuses becoming more carbon neutral is a comforting. In the future, smaller could be a bigger idea.

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