Where will people get their power in the decades ahead? And how low-carbon will it be? With more extreme weather across the U.S., a global pandemic that has consigned vast swaths of the population to working from home and an aging power infrastructure, much of which was built in the last century, it is a question that many are working to resolve.
Both residents and commercial ventures are revisiting new energy solutions that can help them navigate the shift towards a low-carbon future and provide reliable infrastructure for years to come. This is due to most of today’s power grids not being set up to withstand fluctuating and extreme weather conditions. In California alone, over 2 million Americans lost power in 2019 due to public safety power shutoffs. Many have faced unplanned outages because of operational issues and lack of generation to meet demand, while others have been tolerating recent blackouts because of efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfires.
Distributed energy resources (DERs) have become positioned as one such solution to the increasing crisis. DERs are a broad range of technologies that can provide power to the user outside of the grid and include demand-side measures. These technologies can play a key role to a cleaner and more resilient energy system, as well as boost energy independence for customers. The demand for such systems has steadily increased recently and it looks to continue along that trend as a report published by Wood Mackenzie in 2020 suggested cumulative DER capacity in the U.S. could reach 387 gigawatts in the next five years.
Much of the trend towards DERs is driven by digital technology and a greater sense of empowerment among energy customers. Indeed, as more states, cities, businesses, and large institutions start to take control of meeting their own energy needs, new patterns and strategic investments are emerging. DERs provide multiple solutions based on geographies and allow customers to build reliable microgrids that incorporate low-carbon and renewable technologies such as solar, fuel cells and battery storage.
The Department of Energy defines microgrids as “a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid,” For many experts, a microgrid may be the best solution to maintaining reliability when the rest of the grid has a power failure. According to one Smart Energy article, by the end of 2023, renewable generation and storage are expected to represent 22 percent of the annually installed capacity — much of which will be part of a microgrid.
Currently most operational microgrids in the U.S. run on hydrocarbons such as diesel and natural gas. While this is a resilient option today, the path to a cleaner electric grid for the long term requires renewable energy.
Electricity is the fastest-growing part of the energy system and, when generated from renewable sources, has a big role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Microgrids powered by renewable electricity could help society achieve a decarbonized and digitized energy future. The energy providers best-positioned to make that a reality will offer customers different options for cleaner electricity based on their needs and location.
“People understand the importance of becoming energy-independent and are motivated by playing a role in building a cleaner energy system. With costs down, microgrids powered by renewable energy are a win-win for everyone involved — you are producing your own energy, storing surplus for when it’s most valuable and remaining connected to the main utility when you need to.” With adoption numbers growing, microgrids could shape the future of energy. Investing in a microgrid tied to the local utility provides added resilience, while still gaining the many benefits of utility supply and creating the mutual benefits of an integrated grid — a win in the short term and a competitive advantage for the long term.
 Amado, G. (2020, December 9). The rise of local low-carbon and renewable distributed energy solutions. GreenBiz. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/rise-local-low-carbon-and-renewable-distributed-energy-solutions
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