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Microgrids are Essential for Energy Security

Energy security is a multi-layered challenge.

To help ensure homes, businesses and people have access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy, power grids need to be resilient to all manner of threats that have the potential to disrupt our energy ecosystems — extreme weather and climate change, geopolitical events, and cyber intrusions, to name a few. Even the opportunities that come from the integration of cleaner renewable energy sources impact conventional approaches to power networks. At the same time, demand for electricity is growing as we transition to the electrification at scale of transport and industry.

Grid resiliency and reliability are integral parts of achieving energy security and surety. As utilities around the world embark on grid modernization, it is essential to build resilience into the system from the start.

At GE Vernova, we have seen growing interest in the potential for microgrids to improve availability and local capacity, protect against grid disruptions, lower energy costs and integrate renewable energy.

A microgrid is a local, self-sufficient energy system that serves its own network. In a microgrid, a group of interconnected distributed energy resources (DERs) can operate both independently of the grid or as part of it. We often describe a microgrid as a self-sufficient island within a larger grid ocean.

Microgrids aren’t new. Such systems are common for places that cannot tolerate an electricity supply disruption, such as a hospital complex, an airport or a military base, which may have small, gas-fueled power plants onsite to generate electricity in an emergency. Local microgrids can bring essential power to rural or remote locations where connecting to a main grid is impractical or too costly.

Technological advances, however, now mean that we can build smarter microgrids that integrate renewable energy as one or more of the DERs.

Advanced microgrids can gather energy from a variety of local power generation and energy assets, including traditional gas-powered generators, solar energy and battery storage. These microgrids can contribute energy to supplement the grid as well as keep a local grid running when a connection to the larger grid is severed, or even export energy back to the main grid. At GE Vernova's Grid Solutions, our GridNode solution provides automated, real-time control and energy optimization that enables the microgrid to make use of self-generated renewable energy before tapping into the main grid.

In the transport sector, the big push for substantial decarbonization and the shift to electrification of operations means that a localized, micro electric grid is an attractive option. GE’s Power Conversion business is seeing this growth in demand at multi-modal transport hubs like ports, as well as on transport platforms themselves, like ships. The business recently celebrated the success of innovation projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including a digital energy management solution for ports to support the transition to microgrid solutions. Port microgrid and electrification solutions can even include connecting vessels so they can plug in to cleaner power with GE’s SeaGreen Shore Power when they’re in port, reducing pollutants.

As we speak to our customers and industry peers, we are seeing an increased interested in microgrids to help meet net zero commitments and to improve energy surety at the same time. But new solutions must meet our customers’ practical, operational needs too. Increasingly, customers are asking us to advise on microgrid options that are scalable and can transition with the port or other facility, which is where GE’s expertise in system integration comes in.

In terms of resilience and energy surety, for some businesses, even a few hours of energy disruption can be costly. A large airlines company reported having lost $25-50 million in 2017 when an international airport lost power for 11 hours.

New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport, one of the world's business transportation hubs, announced recently that it is developing a microgrid with more than 13,000 solar panels and 7.6 megawatts of generating capacity to ensure continuous operation in the event of a grid failure.

Building resilience into the power grid is increasingly important as climate change induces more extreme weather events. For example, in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, GE Research is bringing together multiple technologies within a microgrid to better protect the island’s residents from weather-related power disruptions.

Puerto Rico experienced the largest blackout in U.S. history in 2017 when Hurricane Maria’s winds collapsed the island’s power grid, leaving residents without normal power for nearly four months.

GE Vernova, as part of a three-year U.S. Department of Energy project, is developing an automated power system with sensors, software, distributed solar and storage, that will enable communities in Puerto Rico to rapidly restore power following severe weather events.

Following an outage, the system will use sensors to collect data to detect damaged equipment and grid software will process the data to determine the best actions to restore power. GE Vernova’s Grid Solutions' automated system will then tap into solar and battery-powered microgrids to reroute that power to the outage area until the community can once again connect with the main grid.

In summary, smart microgrids can offer three key benefits:

  • They can provide uninterrupted electricity and guard against disruption or blackouts if the main grid is unable to deliver electricity due to a weather event or other crisis.
  • They allow for the integration of self-generated renewable energy from solar panels or wind, reducing emissions and even helping to reduce energy costs.
  • They enable more local energy management and optimization to be introduced, helping to improve site energy efficiency and further reduce emissions.

As we update and remake our aging grids, the modern microgrid will prove to be a key aspect for ensuring resiliency and reliability.

About the Author

Dr. Mital Kanabar is the Senior Director of Innovation at GE Vernova’s Grid Solutions’ Grid Automation business in Toronto, Canada. He has more than 15 years of power industry R&D experience, holds more than 20 international patent applications, and has published more than 50 articles. Mital is also serves as a Chair and Vice-Chair of three Working Groups at the IEEE PES Power System Relaying Committee. Mital focuses on customer-centric innovations and collaboration to accelerate Technology Readiness Levels and validate Cost-Benefit Analysis. He has led R&D efforts in digital substation and software systems, renewables integration algorithms, synchrophasor applications, distributed energy resources, and microgrids. He holds a Ph.D. from Western University and degrees in electrical engineering from Sardar Patel University and the Indian Institute of Technology.

Profile Photo of Mital Kanabar