Making Microgrids Work: Send in the Marines?

Making Microgrids Work: Send in the Marines?
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For several decades now electrical power experts have been making increasingly vocal statements about the utility and significant potential advantages of embracing localized power generation and distribution using microgrids, which are essentially miniaturized, self-contained power grids serving a discrete set of users.  Crucially, microgrids are small enough to offer a more manageable model for ensuring a stable and more resilient system, and they can also make the most of emergent technologies and the latest advances in distributed generation sources (such as solar, wind, etc.) while also spreading costs and sharing assets on a manageable scale.  This means they could play a major role in the advent of the so-called smart grid as well as help to address a raft of growing cyber security threats against existing critical infrastructure.  But while the technology is proven and workable business cases can be made, there nonetheless seems to be something holding back the concept from truly taking root.  Is it time to send in the Marines?

Ok, so not the Marines per se, but rather of the military more broadly, specifically by harnessing the Department of Defense’s operational necessity for energy surety and its enormous buying power?  In other words, even though military, commercial, civic, scientific, industrial and other communities interested in the great potential of microgrids need to assess the practical, real-world benefits and associated costs and trade-offs involved in a smart, modern and resilient microgrid project, someone has to take the first step and help develop the market. Could the military lead the way by showing how cooperation, financing, planning and shared responsibility with the local community can be leveraged to strengthen the power grid for communities where vital national security functions overlap with civilian communities?  If the resistance to microgrid adoption is related mostly to the difficulty of overcoming marketplace inertia, is there a way that embracing the energy surety aspects of microgrids could make the Department of Defense more resilient against power supply disruptions while also harnessing the power of Public-Private Partnerships to help foster the nascent microgrid industry?   This would serve a clear national security imperative as well as support economic growth in the important arena of tailored microgrids serving specific end-users.

In practical terms, microgrids are best suited for locations servicing a discrete user base with relatively high energy needs and a recognized emphasis on energy surety. This includes users such as military bases, air and sea ports, manufacturing industrial parks, and research universities.  For example, consider the following hypothetical set of end-users prevalent at multiple large military installations:

  • A military installation needing a high degree of energy security and resilience, but which also has available lands for locating solar arrays;
  • A technology research park that requires unusually precise voltage and amperage control for use in sensitive research systems; and
  • A large-scale computer server farm in need of energy security and resilience while able to harness significant amounts of the heat created during the power generation process to drive always-on steam-powered air conditioning units, thereby significantly increasing overall efficiency of the microgrid system.

By sharing resources and harnessing shared assets as well as the shared need for efficient, stable and reliable energy in that specific location, a microgrid developed as a public-private partnership might yield great advantages at reasonable cost, while also helping to get the market past the ‘tipping point’ beyond which the microgrid market can finally emerge and service the growing need for electrical power that is more specifically tailored to the needs and desires of various end-users.

As with any complex undertaking there will be many parties ultimately required to achieve successful outcomes.  For example, the Department of Energy will need to continue to support research projects and advanced design studies on microgrids around the country, including through its Grid Modernization Initiative. And the private sector as well as an engaged citizenry are obvious and essential elements of any effective public-private partnership effort.  But what is most essential at this stage seems to be an entity with the motivation to make the market potential into reality.  Given its relative size as a potential market driver this important role could and should be played by the US military. Indeed, the DoD uniquely fits the bill, for it is both a major consumer of energy and has many specific installations and functions with a compelling operational need to ensure resilient access to electrical power.

Microgrids will play an important role in the future of U.S. and global electrical power systems. And, as it turns out, the DoD is already the de facto market leader.  As recently observed by industry insider John Carroll, “The military is the technology leader. Every utility is looking at the Department of Defense for how they are deploying microgrids.” The next practical step is for the military to shift from ‘market leader’ to ‘market maker’ by fully embracing this opportunity to help usher in a new era of modern, efficient and resilient microgrids that can serve as a feasible supplement to the nation’s aging power grid.

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