Customer value is a key factor in any smart grid business case. But not all customers are created equal. In particular, commercial and industrial (C&I) customers have greatly different needs,...
Islands in the Storm
Microgrids begin to make economic sense.
My friend Reggie believes the world is coming to an end.
No, he didn’t fall for that Mayan calendar nonsense. He’s a rational person, but he watches the news with an eye out for the endgame; he expects a global economic collapse, caused by the mounting global debt load. That is, if the world isn’t first devastated by nuclear war, sparked by religious jihad. And failing that, there’s a whole menu of natural disasters waiting to strike the planet, including wayward comets, solar flares, or a magnetic polar shift.
The point is, he expects the end of civilization as we know it, and every day the news seems to confirm his suspicions. From Superstorm Sandy to the fiscal cliff, the world seems to be falling apart—and Reggie is preparing for the end. He’s assembled a bug-out kit, with food, water, and survival gear for several days. He owns multiple firearms and stocks plenty of ammo. His plan is to get his family out of the suburbs as quickly as possible, so they can reach their cabin in Minnesota’s north woods. There, he reasons, they can hunker down and stay safe until the worst is over. Or they can just build a new life, far away from the zombie hordes.
Recently Reggie was telling me about his escape plan, and I noticed some weaknesses. For instance, if his vehicle’s tank isn’t full of gasoline, he’ll be in trouble. Gas pumps need electricity, and if civilization is ending, then the utility grid won’t continue magically functioning on its own. But even assuming he has plenty of fuel in the tank, once he arrives at his destination he’ll find there’s no electricity there either. He’d better hope Armageddon doesn’t happen before springtime, because although his cabin’s heater runs on propane (from a tank we assume will be topped up when he arrives), the thermostat, igniter, and fan all require a steady stream of electrons. He has a portable generator, but how long will it run on the fuel he’s managed to bring with him?
After this conversation, Reggie seemed annoyed with me. I’d shed the harsh light of reality onto his post-apocalyptic fantasy, and he didn’t like what it revealed. But he cheered up when I told him the utility industry actually is working on a solution to his problem: the microgrid.
With microgrids in place, Reggie might not need to worry so much about a global collapse. Even if the overall network goes down, intelligent microgrids will keep power going in some locations—perhaps locations that include gas stations. And in a world where distributed generation is cheap enough to make microgrids economically viable, Reggie probably will have a PV module on the roof of his cabin, and a battery back-up system. Further, oil and gas operations and pipeline pressure stations will run on CHP units and fuel cells. So at least in principle, the fuel could resume flowing soon and the economy could