Image Credit – Phys.org

Energy Microgrids – future? or hype?

In a bid to understand the electricity and the technology behind electricity production, distribution and marketing, I am planning to write a series of articles which is my research in this area. I also plan to dive deep into the financial aspects of the energy market.

Every article will concentrate on a specific topic, and I am not planning to maintain continuity between different topics. The starting point of this journey for me is to understand the term ‘Microgrid’. I am fascinated by the potential of Microgrids for the future of energy management and sustainability, and hence it feels like the right topic to start my exploration.

Life-cycle of electricity in the modern world?

Unless you have been living in a cave; away from the modern world and not reading this article, you have conscious or unconscious gratitude towards how energy in general and electricity, in particular, has simplified our lives.

The life-cycle of electricity in the modern world can be articulated by studying the working of an electrical grid. The electrical grid connects all of the components from generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of electricity and is a technological marvel in its own rights.

Spend four minutes and watch the video below to understand how energy generated in a remote location reaches your home and improves your lifestyle on a daily basis.

Electricity started being commercially used in and around the year 1870, and the first electricity grid came into existence in the year 1882. Since 1882 there have been many iterations where technology has been introduced to optimise the production and distribution of electricity, but there hasn’t been a substantial revolution in the introduction of technology by energy operators.

[mks_pullquote align=”center” width=”750″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#d0d4db” txt_color=”#000000″ txt_align=”center”] Electricity is uni-directional at the moment!

Have you heard of the concept of ‘The Arrow of Time’?

It’s a concept that talks about how time is unidirectional and follows a singular path. Everything from the past flows to the present and from there to the future. It appears energy transmission and distribution is also somehow intertwined with the arrow of time and forms an ‘Arrow of Energy’ of sorts. Energy generated at the source moves to substations and to the place of consumption and is unidirectional. I will try to illustrate the path of energy flow using the below representation:

Uni-directional flow of energy

Arrow of energy poses a unique threat in solving the following

  • Scaling energy throughput to consumer areas where energy demand surges without warning
  • Storage of electricity at a point near the consumption rather than production to offset unanticipated energy demand within the network
  • The ability for consumers to contribute towards the scaling of the grid and contribute towards energy production rather than only consumption
  • Open new dimensions in energy trading by allowing consumers to trade energy between themselves
  • Reduce dependency on the electricity grid that would allow for energy companies to concentrate on mid to large size consumers
  • Bridge the gap between energy sustainability and rising demand
  • Lower carbon footprint and pave the way for an eco-friendly energy distribution network for the future

The list goes on and proves that a need to tackle the arrow of energy phenomenon is imperative to have a sustainable energy production strategy for the future. Microgrid networks are the best contenders in solving the arrow of energy problem faced by today’s grids.

What is a Microgrid?

Image Credit – Green Optimistic

Wiki Definition – A microgrid is a localised group of electricity sources that operate typically connected to and synchronous with the macrogrid but can also disconnect to an “island mode” and function autonomously as physical and economic conditions dictate.

Simple Definition – A microgrid is an energy grid run by a small community and as the name suggests is miniature compared to the energy grid run by large power generation and distribution companies. The aim for a microgrid is to provide auxiliary power to its owner to offset consumption from the larger electricity grid, and an aspirational goal would be to be large and efficient enough to procure no energy from the network and if lucky put a bit of electricity back to the grid. However, if the big power companies are quick enough, they could end up cashing on this phenomenon and build microgrids themselves.

With an energy microgrid in the picture, the flow of energy changes and I will attempt to illustrate it at a high level using the following representation:

Influence of a microgrid on the flow of energy

By having a microgrid controller setup at a community/suburb/estate energy transfer hub, it becomes quite easy to control the flow of energy and in some respects the direction of the energy flow as well. The microgrid controlling station equipped with battery storage can understand patterns of usage within the community and intelligently switch from grid energy usage to stored energy usage.

The community, if equipped with solar arrays (either independent/dedicated arrays or over rooftops of industrial/ commercial/ residential establishments) can feed the controlling station with surplus power in the day towards storage. Bigger communities may explore additional sources of energy such as wind farms.

On a long run and with sophistication in the field of predictive analytics software, the microgrid could potentially sell surplus energy back to the electricity grid and in turn become a revenue-generating source for the community.

So, what’s the verdict? – Future? or Hype?

In my view, microgrids will become the norm of the future. Human civilisation will pivot to alternative ways of bridging the gap between energy demand and what major energy companies can generate and distribute. Energy-hungry communities of the future will pivot to innovative solutions that will make the running of microgrids within smaller communities more feasible and attractive.

Microgrids can become a hype only if humans find an alternative and renewable source of energy that is cheaper to produce in comparison to the current sources energy. In short, the source of this futuristic energy solution will make establishment of a microgrid look like an expensive proposition.

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