Microgrids that utilize solar energy could help make it more cost-effective.
Photo Courtesy of Maryland Public Service Commission
The Untapped Potential of Solar Microgrids
By Tova Levin December 10, 2017
Switching over the system that powers our world is a daunting but necessary task. We will eventually need to move to 100 percent renewable power, but attaining that goal might be far in the future. Today, influencing the energy mix in the grid—the interconnected power pipeline from which nearly everyone and everything draws electricity—is a difficult process. Although the cost of most renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar, have plummeted in recent years, most utilities are dissuaded from investing in renewables due to the amount of initial capital needed. A massive infrastructural overhaul would be required to switch out old fossil fuel burning technologies with clean power. However, it is possible, and growing increasingly feasible, to disconnect from the grid entirely. Among other benefits, this allows energy consumers the ability to efficiently implement clean power projects. Renewable energy need not be at odds with reliability and reasonable pricing. For the Department of Defense, development aid projects, and refugee camps and other impermanent settlements, microgrids powered with solar energy could provide clean, reliable energy at cost-competitive rates.
Microgrids are distributed generation systems—meaning that the power generation is spread out beyond the major equipment connected to the grid, such as a coal burning plant—that can operate either independently or connected to the grid. Currently, microgrids are often used as large-scale backup generators, and thus still stay connected to the grid for non-emergency use. However, the fact that microgrids can be disconnected from the grid decreases the risk of shocks that might disrupt power, meaning that microgrids are a safer option for vulnerable consumers.
The Department of Defense should focus on creating an independent local energy supply, in which all installation energy—energy used on permanent bases—is produced and processed on site, and operations energy is significantly reduced. With an independent energy supply, bases could disconnect from the grid. This would provide a number of benefits for the DoD, especially in terms of energy security. Cyber attacks against the energy systems of military installations already occur and are likely to increase in the future. Remaining connected to the grid leaves bases extremely vulnerable to such attacks, whereas distributed generation, managed by the DoD itself, would be much more secure. Making such a switch would also mean that blackouts, which threaten sensitive operations conducted increasingly with the use of technology and computers, would be less frequent. “The development of on-site energy supplies and smart microgrids, which are part of a net zero energy solution, can reduce this risk [of blackouts and system failure], and may become an increasingly important strategic concern” (Marqusee 2007). Moreover, switching to renewable energy is in the best interest of the DoD, as the department recognizes that climate change is one of the most serious modern security threats.
Structurally vulnerable populations would also benefit from access to microgrids. “Even the most basic services are reliant on energy” (Jaffe). Microgrids can reduce the difficulty of supplying energy to those most in need of it, especially as part of disaster relief: Distributed systems are less capital intensive and faster to install than large-scale centralized systems, and can be implemented in a modular and incremental fashion to scale up or down along with needs or to focus on priority services or locations. And because of their smaller spatial domain, they are five times less sensitive to weather or military events in one location, making them more dependable in difficult operating environments, such as areas of conflict (Jaffe). Solar microgrids are a more sustainable and secure option for vulnerable populations (Bazilian), as well as for development projects in areas that are difficult to access. Much of rural Sub-Saharan Africa now receives energy from local solar microgrids, as it would be too costly and difficult to connect to grids in geographically distanced major cities.
Similarly, procuring clean, reliable energy is often impossible for refugees. Around 26 million people had been displaced due to climate change by 2009, and “as many as 500 to 600 million people—nearly 10 percent of the world’s population—are at risk from displacement” (Singer). Refugees remain displaced for an average of 17 years, so assuming that these energy needs are temporary on a short time scale is cost inefficient and threatening to refugees’ ability to access energy (Grafham). Countries often pretend refugee settlements are more impermanent than they actually are and prevent permanent structures for political reasons, as these governments want to discourage refugees from staying. But investing in solar PV microgrids can actually be cost effective for host countries (Franceschi). “The widespread introduction of improved cookstoves and basic solar lanterns could save $303 million a year in fuel costs after an initial capital investment of $334 million. [Thus] there is a strong human, economic, and environmental case to be made or improving energy access for refugees and displaced people, and for recognising energy as a core concern within humanitarian relief efforts” (Lehne).
Supplying reliable energy for vulnerable consumers and transitioning the global energy mix to renewable power are both vital, urgent goals. However, they are also dauntingly broad and challenging issues. Using distributed generation and small-scale energy production tackle these issues one project at a time. Solar microgrids offer a cost-effective, sustainable, secure method of procuring energy; the implementation of these microgrids would support environmental, humanitarian, and defense goals. If governments and international organizations invest in microgrids, the payoff would be significant.
Marqusee J, Schultz C, Robyn D. (2017). “Power Begins At Home: Assured Energy for US Military
Bazilian, M., & Chattopadhyay, D. (2016). Considering power system planning in fragile and conflict
states. Energy for Sustainable Development, 32, 110–120.
Franceschi, J., Rothkop, J., & Miller, G. (2014). Off-grid solar PV power for humanitarian action: From
emergency communications to refugee camp micro-grids. Procedia Engineering, 78, 229–235.
Grafham, O. (2017). “Moving Energy Initiative: Sustainable Energy for Refugees and Displaced People,”
Jaffe, A. M., Iversen, L., & Bazilian, M. D. (2017). How Mini-Grids Can Power Disaster Recovery.
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