How smart microgrids are changing neighbourhoods around the world

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Both rural and urban communities around the world are looking at ways to secure their energy networks, ensuring that they are resilient in the face of changing needs. Increasingly these communities are looking to microgrids as a way to transform the way their neighbourhoods produce and consume electricity.

Microgrids have already proved particularly successful in rural areas, as an economic alternative to connecting to national grids, but are also popping up in cities. People are looking to protect themselves from outages caused by extreme weather and to help people take advantage of self-generation from intermittent renewables, in particular solar PV systems. Microgrids can offer a solution to both.

Energy Solutions Division of Hitachi America, Alireza Aram, explained in the report: “Against a background of successive natural disasters and terror threats around the world, a steady supply of electricity including measures against power outages is a common social issue for all countries, from Both rural and urban communities around the world are looking at ways to secure energy networks, ensuring that they are resilient in the face of global changes. Increasingly these communities are looking to microgrids as a way to transform the way their neighbourhoods produce and consume electricity.

Microgrids have already proved particularly successful in rural areas as an economic alternative to connecting to national grid, but are also popping up in cities. People look to protect themselves from outages caused by extreme weather and to help people take advantage of self-generation from intermittent renewables, in particular solar PV systems. Microgrids can offer a solution to both.

In a Global Innovation report by Hitachi America, the biggest growing microgrid markets were examined, predicting that worldwide there is likely to be 7,500MW of capacity and a US$35,000 million market by 2024.

As senior vice president and general manager of the the viewpoint of the safety and security of their residents.

“As the introduction of renewable energy proceeds as a measure against global warming, microgrids are looked to as a promising solution to various issues.”

How are microgrids developing though, and how ‘smart’ can a neighbourhood become?

Microgrids: not such a ‘micro’ trend

As a concept microgrids are not particularly new, they have functioned around the world using fossil fuel generation for decades. But as renewable generation technologies have developed along with digitisation, the possibilities they offer have expanded.

In the US there were 2,250 microgrids in 2018 according to Wood Mackenzie, with 545MW of capacity added that year alone. The majority of these microgrids still use standalone fossil-fuel generation, but this is changing as communities and companies take advantage of technologies such as solar and blockchain.

For example, the Brooklyn Microgrid project that was established in 2016 takes advantage of blockchain to allow a collection of homes in the New York suburb to generate power using solar panels, and then use peer-to-peer (P2P) trading. It was the first project of its kind in the US and has continued to expand and receive acclaim over the last few years.

Now there are over 50 homes and businesses within the grid, which is run by LO3 Energy. The desire for a microgrid in the area came after Storm Sandy caused widespread blackouts in New York in 2012, calling the security of the electricity supply into question for many.

Microgrids like this are popping up in communities around the US and Europe, but they are also helping communities in energy-poor countries in Sub-Saharan African and Asia. A Navigant Research report produced in 2018 showed that the Middle East and Africa region was forecast to have the world’s fastest market for microgrids. It suggested that there would be a compound annual growth rate of 27% in these regions, which could represent almost 1,145 by 2027.

In these communities the technology can offer electrification where there hasn’t been any before, bringing a huge range of benefits. Not least among them, such grids can support lighting that allows people to move away from hazardous kerosene lamps, which pose a number of health risks from producing harmful gases to being a fire risk.

The Alabama Smart Neighbourhood: the newest test ground

In Alabama, a microgrid pilot project has been launched to test and trial the neighbourhood of the future. Completed in 2018, the project consists of 62 homes built with advanced energy efficiency measures, home automation and connected to its own microgrid, all integrated together.

While the microgrid can work together with the national grid, it can also be islanded, functioning completely separately, and relying purely on its own generation and storage technologies.

Todd Rath, marketing services director for Alabama Power, who is running the project, explains: “We wanted to create a neighbourhood that would be what we think a standard neighbourhood in the state of Alabama and the southeast would probably look like in the year 2040, and that would include building envelope requirements as well as technologies within the home with appliances and other connected technologies. And using an energy source that may be different than a traditional grid, such as a microgrid with solar, battery storage and those kind of things.”

The neighbourhood is the Southeast’s first community-scale microgrid, according to Alabama Power, and is designed to be a true testing ground, allowing the utility to understand the changing needs and opportunities of those living in Alabama and beyond. Alabama Power is a subsidiary of the Southern Company; a second subsidiary, Georgia Power, is now also running a microgrid project to trial smart technologies.

The Alabama Smart Neighbourhood uses solar panels, battery storage and a backup natural gas generator to create a complete energy system. The microgrid has around 1MWp of electrical output, separated between three components; a 333kW fixed-tilt array, comprising 11 rows of solar modules with string inverters at the end of each row, a lithium-ion battery system provided by Samsung with a capacity of 333kW, and a 400kWp natural gas-fired turbine….

Cover image: Solar arrays that form part of the Alabama Smart Neighbourhood. Image credit: Alabama Power.

To read the rest of the article, take a look atVolume 22 of Solar Media's quarterly journal, PV Tech Power where the article first appeared or PV Tech’s sister site Energy Storage News where it was subsequently published. You can download the whole 104-page book free of charge here, from the PV Tech Store.

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