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Microgrids: the secret of self-sufficiency

A good alternative to the traditional energy infrastructure of individual communities.

by Amanda Saint
28 September 2020
6 min read
by Amanda Saint
28 September 2020
6 min read

In the ongoing phase-out of centralized, fossil fuel energy, microgrids are starting to play a big part in helping communities become more self-sufficient for their power. Small-scale energy generation through these microgrids is proving to be the best solution for remote communities that have typically found connecting to the national grid difficult, sometimes impossible, and often unreliable.

These three communities have all seen their energy supplies transformed and their environmental impact improved by setting up their own microgrids.

Disconnecting from the mainland

Just six miles long and two miles wide, the Isle au Haut sits about seven miles off the coast of Maine, USA. Partly covered by the Acadia National Park, it has only 50 permanent residents.

The island's electricity supply comes through an underwater cable from the mainland, which was installed by a local fisherman in 1983. When the current supply is interrupted, the islanders rely on diesel generators, a solution that is too costly and harmful to the environment to work in the long term.

Realizing that the cable may fail completely sometime soon, the islanders are now faced with the challenge of upgrading their energy network. That's why they are investing in a 300KW microgrid made up of 900 solar panels that will enable the community to transfer to renewable energy.

The grid will also feature the latest in solar storage solutions, including supercapacitors, electronic devices that store and release energy at a rapid rate without degrading the way typical batteries do. The grid generates enough energy for 300 people, the approximate number of Isle au Haut's summer visitors.

While the power cable connecting the island to the mainland is still working, the extra electricity generated during the rest of the year will be sold back to the power company. In the long term, air-to-water heat pump heating systems will be installed in all residential, municipal and commercial properties on the island. These will turn the excess electricity into hot water that will be used to heat the buildings, instead of the wood, oil and kerosene the islanders currently rely on.

View of the Acadia National Park

A village in Alaska moves away from diesel

Home to just 160 people, the village of Deering in remote Northwest Alaska has been able to cut its reliance on diesel generators now that it has a new solar microgrid installed, along with battery storage.

Located on the Kotzebue Sound just south of the Arctic Circle, the village experiences weather extremes, and with the sun never setting during the summer months, their solar power resources need a reliable storage solution. In the winter, the village gets only about four hours of daylight, so the new solar microgrid is working alongside the wind turbines the community installed in 2015.

The solar microgrid, installed by a California-based company, Box Power, is comprised of three solar and storage units that are 16 kW each, which provide additional renewable energy, reducing the amount of diesel the community uses.

This is great news for the environment, as Deering's residents were previously burning around 46,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year. That's costly for a local economy already contending with a high cost of living—food and other supplies must be flown in for much of the year when the river is frozen.

The microgrid automatically switches off the diesel generators when the conditions are right. The community estimates that with their grid and similar ones installed in the nearby communities of Kotzebue and Buckland, they'll reduce carbon emissions by as much as 305 metric tons annually for their region.

Replacing traditional energy infrastructure

In the remote town of Onslow, Western Australia, utility company, Horizon Power, and PXiSE Energy Solutions, a provider of microgrid controls, have partnered to build a microgrid that demonstrates how remote communities can replace their traditional energy infrastructure.

The town's 848 residents have been able to completely retire their diesel and thermal power supply, and now have a new microgrid made up of 1 MW solar and 2 MW battery storage, plus natural gas.

This project is part of Horizon and PXiSE's wider plan to connect more remote Australian towns to microgrids and increase the amount of the country's energy coming from renewable sources.

The future of energy

These three communities are just minor examples of the rapidly growing number of microgrid projects worldwide. According to the Guidehouse Insights report, March 2020 estimates a total of 6,610 micro projects worldwide, representing 31,784.6 MW of planned and installed power capacity.

With industry analysts predicting that over the next five years, the global micro market will grow to a value of USD $47.4 billion from its current value of $28.6 billion, the future of energy appears to be going micro.