Energy Management

Microgrids: The Solution to Energy Challenges for Both Public and Private Sectors

4 min read


Microgrids are revolutionizing the energy industry and are proving to be an effective solution to challenges that both the private sector and public sector face. Whether its energy security, emergency preparedness or distribution, the evidence is growing that microgrids can provide organizations with unparalleled reliability and resilience needed to ensure continuity of operations and help organizations fulfill their missions.

I recently had the opportunity to moderate an interesting discussion on the use of microgrids today in the public and private sector and the future of microgrids during Constellation’s annual Executive Energy Forum. It was evident from my conversation with energy leaders from the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Army, U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and Verizon that the potential of the microgrid is great, but we are only beginning to widely deploy this advanced smart technology and unleash its full potential.

Microgrids, localized energy systems that can sustain energy independence separate of the grid by connecting and disconnecting when needed, are essential to an agency like the State Department, which operates in numerous locations where the electric grid is nonexistent.

Landon VanDyke, the Executive Coordinator for Environment, Energy and Sustainability at the State Department, said that microgrids enable agency compounds to operate as islands where necessary. With a presence in 190 countries around the world, the State Department’s energy strategy must focus on sustaining operations in 274 embassies and diplomatic posts. The challenge for the agency is to ensure that compounds run as efficiently as possible because they frequently share the electricity generated onsite and distribute it to the local community.

The link between energy and security is of vital importance; it’s abundantly clear that an energy system that is both reliable and resilient is important to keeping the nation more secure. John Lushetsky, Executive Director of the Army’s Energy Initiatives Task Force, explained that security concerns are the driving force behind mobilizing microgrids. As the largest user of electricity in the federal government with electricity bills totaling about $1.25-$1.5 billion dollars annually, the Army needs to reliably power 150 bases worldwide.

An even more important task for the Army is to deploy microgrids to conflict areas like Afghanistan and Iraq. Bases in these areas rely heavily on generators, which require significant fuel supplies to operate. The fuel is brought in by tanker trucks, which has led to many fatalities. Microgrids improved the efficiency of the generators so that less fuel has been required. There are now over 30 different microgrids operating in Afghanistan and the Army is now looking at employing microgrids in some U.S. installations.

GSA, the federal government’s landlord that provides office and workspace services at 9,184 properties spanning across 370 million square feet, has been utilizing microgrids “before they were called microgrids,” said Mark Ewing, Director of GSA’s Energy Division.

He noted that GSA explored using the microgrids more than a decade ago because an agency needed high quality power and required independence from the grid.

Federal agencies must meet energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation mandates while achieving their overall mission. To date, “there is no mandate for microgrid installation, but we do pursue it for business reasons,” said Ewing.

Like the public sector, the private sector is also exploring uses for microgrid implementation. Verizon, with 100,000 electric accounts across the country, focuses on redundancy and resiliency. All of its buildings and facilities employ backup generators, power volume monitoring and batteries to ensure communications continue to work in case of a power outage. In the event of an outage, facilities with a microgrid can independently sustain themselves and alleviate the burden on the electric grid.

“Verizon also looks at ourselves as one of the enablers of the smart grid,” said Jeremy Metz, Group Energy Manager at Verizon. Whether it’s machine-to-machine communications, wireless technology or wire technologies that control building systems, Verizon is working on developing more efficient energy solutions. The company is utilizing better quality engines and looking at advanced battery technology, fuel cells and solar panels.

Some Verizon facilities use combined heat and power to enhance reliability. If the grid is down and fuel cannot be accessed, Verizon can rely on natural gas and chillers. Verizon also must keep data centers and cell towers cool year-round and thus has to rely heavily on the grid for air conditioning power. The company is moving to a model where a portion of the cooling is now from its own distributed energy source, which contributes to efficiencies to the grid, sustainability and reliability improvements as well.

There is no doubt that microgrids are the next energy frontier and can help address many energy challenges. Private-public partnerships are an optimal way to deploy these independent energy generators.

So how do we deploy microgrid and other innovative technologies long-term to meet energy goals and save money? Representatives from both the private and public sector agreed that research and development, expertise and financing are necessary. Private-public partnerships are central to these efforts as governmental agencies need to employ innovative solutions where private entities assume the project risk.

Microgrids are providing both the public and private sector entities the ability to sustain energy independent of the electrical grid, posing a solution for the many energy challenges they face. The use of microgrids in these sectors is evolving and it is only a matter of time until the full potential is realized.

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