Cargo Pants, Duct Tape, and…Microgrids?

""As the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaches, analysts and policymakers are reviewing progress, or lack thereof, toward developing a more resilient electric system—an electric system capable of quickly bouncing back from devastating events like Sandy. Microgrids often feature prominently in the discussion because they allow customers or whole segments of the distribution system to disconnect from the larger grid and maintain power to critical loads at the first sign of trouble and then reconnect to the system when it has stabilized.

The promise of microgrid technology has caught the eye of large customers that require high levels of reliability. But no one customer has committed to explore the microgrid solution more than the U.S. military.

Why the military?

The U.S. military operates bases around the world, and many of these bases do their most important work in times of crisis—requiring electricity just when the system is at its weakest and most vulnerable. It is no surprise then that the military is devoting major resources to the exploration of microgrids, experimenting and studying the technology on over 40 bases.

As likely the largest trial ground for microgrid technology, how the military fares with it will go a long way to determining if the technology is ready for wider application. A military base includes many of the types of uses that exist in civilian life, from residential homes to commercial activities such as data centers, offices, and restaurants. In fact, many important technologies we use in daily life originated in the military or from technologies developed for the military. GPS, the microwave oven, duct tape, and even the favorite fashion staple the cargo pant got their start in the military. Moreover, the military must now operate under much tighter economic constraints given new budget realities, so if the microgrid can flourish in a military setting, it makes a strong economic case for its adoption in civilian life.

Understanding the challenges

Recently, RMI’s Electricity Innovation Lab (e-Lab) held a small workshop with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest (NAVFAC Southwest) to better understand some of the challenges and opportunities the Navy will face as it begins to experiment with microgrids. The command is embarking on a new project to link microgrids together, and it is interested in exploring how this technology could be spread throughout its bases in the Southwest.

At the workshop, a diverse group of participants from within the Navy as well as outside experts from organizations like Spirae, Power Analytics, and San Diego Gas & Electric identified several interesting findings.

For example, current approaches to renewable energy investment in the Navy don’t necessarily support microgrid efforts to improve energy security. The bulk of the Navy’s renewables investment appears to be geared toward large-scale renewables. These investments tend not to fit the highly distributed nature of microgrids and can introduce a small number of choke points that jeopardize energy security. Other findings discuss the need for clearer microgrid design requirements, highlight the importance and near-term potential for improved control over energy use and supply on bases, and consider market participation opportunities for military microgrids in the California electricity market.

Based on these and other findings, e-Lab published a report that provides recommendations for NAVFAC Southwest on pathways forward to better understand the microgrid need, study the economics, and experiment with the technology. Although these recommendations are made in the NAVFAC context, we believe they are also instructive for large customers, utilities, and regulators who may soon be grappling with how to incorporate microgrid technology.

The report and our work with NAVFAC Southwest illustrate the challenges to making microgrids work in order to achieve a secure, distributed, and renewable electricity system. However, with the U.S. military as the testing ground, microgrids will hopefully become as ubiquitous as duct tape and the microwave oven, putting us firmly on the path to reinvent fire.

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