What Are Microgrids and How do They Work?

By Tim Henderson

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Last Updated on

Jul 26

Energy delivery systems aren’t as reliable as they used to be. Utility giants like PG&E are implementing rolling blackouts, and the grid itself is increasingly subject to natural disasters and outages. 

As such, customers throughout California and the country are turning their attention to innovative renewable energy sources that can provide electricity both day and night – particularly microgrids.

Microgrids are one of the few energy solutions equipped to address the changing face of energy delivery. In addition to providing energy stability, they promote a more reliable, resilient and green grid.

Here’s what you need to know about microgrids and their projected impact on residential and commercial energy use in the coming years.

What are Microgrids?

A grid, by definition, is a combination of power sources in any configuration. Grids include power sources, a control system, users, and wires that connect users to the network. 

A microgrid, meanwhile, is a small, freestanding grid system, which typically consists of solar panels, solar battery backup, and a natural gas generator. Microgrids can vary in capacity and size, ranging from small residential systems to larger commercial microgrids, like the one we recently installed to supply power to our new Santa Cruz-based headquarters building.

Microgrids are growing in popularity. According to the research firm GTM, there are currently “1,900 basic and advanced, operational and planned microgrids” in the US. These include systems in Brooklyn, Sonoma, and even on Alcatraz Island. Experts expect the market to continue growing quickly in coming years as the reliability and affordability of the traditional electrical grid continues to worsen.  

How Microgrids Work

Microgrids are straightforward systems. To understand how they work, though, you must first understand how the grid itself operates. 

The grid connects businesses and residences to central power sources. The power from the grid allows houses and companies to power appliances, electronics, and heating and cooling systems. However, when the grid goes down, it affects everyone connected to it. 

That’s where microgrids come in. 

According to the Department of Energy, microgrids generally operate with a connection to the grid. The important distinction, though, is that microgrids can break from the grid and act on their own, relying on local energy generation during power outages or disasters.

“A microgrid can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, and renewable resources like solar panels. Depending on how it’s fueled and how its requirements are managed, a microgrid might run indefinitely.”

5 Benefits of Microgrids

Microgrids offer many benefits. Here are some of the most significant ones:

  1. Energy Reliability. Microgrids offer distributed energy and enhanced energy reliability. This allows homes and businesses to rely on their microgrid during power outages. Since they have their own power, they can keep operating no matter what. 
  2. Better Local Energy Delivery. Microgrids provide low-cost, clean, efficient energy for local communities, with fewer interruptions and less variability.
  3. Reduced Fuel Use. Microgrids enable a highly efficient form of power. They reduce fuel use, lower line losses, and cut down on the overall carbon footprint. 
  4. Support for Variable Renewable Generation. With the help of recent advances in energy storage technologies, microgrids make it easier for users to fully utilize and manage their renewable energy generation.
  5. Affordability. The cost of traditional grid power is driven, in large part, by forces outside of customer control. For example, rate payers will bare the cost of replacing aging power plants, crumbling transmission infrastructure, and damages caused by natural disasters such as fires. Micro-grids liberate customers from vulnerability to price uncertainty by utilizing on-site energy generation and energy storage tailored to their needs.

Investing in Renewable Energy: Sandbar’s Move to a Microgrid

Sandbar Solar believes in the benefits of microgrids. As such, we decided to put our money where our mouth was by disconnecting from PG&E and installing a microgrid at our new corporate headquarters in Santa Cruz.

Today, we are using a unique off-grid electricity system. The system is robust enough to supply power for all our electrical needs. It’s currently powering an 11,500-square foot warehouse and office space.

Sandbar is excited about this transition, and we look forward to continuing to provide outstanding service for our customers in northern California and beyond. Ready to learn more about our microgrid services? Contact us today

 

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About the Author

Tim has worked in the solar industry since 2008. He has a Master's Degree in Energy Resources Engineering from Stanford University. His years of experience include working on solar energy projects for both homes and commercial properties. Tim enjoys sharing his knowledge of this evolving industry and making a difference in his community.