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Are Microgrids the Answer to Energy Disruptions?

By District Energy posted 05-14-2020 10:01


Commercial Property Executive


In light of the renewable energy expansion of recent years, microgrids have become increasingly more popular. Although they seem new, these installations have been around for many years—the first one was introduced by Thomas Edison in 1882 at his Pearl Street Station in Manhattan—and are especially used by university campuses. Harvard University, Princeton University and The University of California San Diego are just a few beneficiaries.

Depending on their size, microgrids can power large facilities—one such example is the University of Texas at Austin. The institution’s microgrid dates back to 1929 and has a peak capacity of 62 megawatts, serving 150 buildings. The system features a combined heat and power plant rated at 135 megawatts and has been revamped over the years, reaching 86 percent efficiency in 2014, up from 42 percent in 1976. 

Adoption of microgrids began accelerating about a decade ago, when severe storms caused havoc in the Northeast. Prolonged efforts to rebuild the electricity infrastructure, badly damaged by hurricanes, have made people look for ways to better prepare themselves for such destructive natural events in the future. Suddenly, microgrids and distributed energy were garnering interest. As a result, in 2017, research firm GTM identified 1,900 basic, advanced, operational or planned microgrids in the U.S.

At the start of the year, microgrids were touted as one of the five main trends shaping the energy sector in 2020, along with electric vehicles, digitalization and cybersecurity of the grid, grid-scale battery technology and blockchain networks. These days, although many workplaces have halted operations—which has temporarily decreased energy demand—the COVID-19 pandemic is straining hospitals and food distribution systems, reminding everyone just how important electricity and generators are.

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