The glittering vision of the smart grid is out there, somewhere. One day, most of us will receive services from personal energy monitoring to renewable power generation at home. For now, it’s slow going. In the meantime, the impatient can set up their own, smaller smart grid while they wait for the slow-moving utilities to catch up.
“It’s a rolling wave of transformation going on here,” says Jeff Taft, Cisco’s chief architect for smart grid technology. “The utilities don’t do that very fast. Their mission is to keep the lights on. When you tell them you need to fundamental changes to the operation of the grid, it’s like telling someone that you need to rebuild your airplane but can’t land it.”
To get an idea about how fast grid technology is moving, the federal government’s grand energy plan is called “Grid 2030: A National Vision for Electricity’s Second 100 Years.” You can see where this is going.
Microgrids are the impatient upstarts of our energy future. As we reported in 2009, microgrids are independent, small-scale electricity systems for communities, towns, campuses, or even individuals, delivering what customers demand today: integrated distributed renewable energy, improved reliability, personal energy use data, and customized control. Microgrids work independently of the larger grid (although inter-connections are also possible) allowing almost anyone to build, own, and operate their own smart energy network.
Most of the 160 examples of microgrids to date have been pilots or research experiments, many built by the military. “This will not be the case for long, however,” states Peter Asmus, of Pike Research, in a recent report on microgrids. In 2010, the first commercial-scale microgrid projects made significant progress with the shift from pilot validation projects to fully commercial projects, a trend expected to accelerate as new standards and better technologies are adopted. For now, North America leads with 69% of the 1.2 gigawatts in installed microgrid capacity around the world, while Asia Pacific and Europe are close behind.
Microgrids could also unlock a new business model “critical to resolving the serious economic and environmental threats facing our nation,” argues the Galvin Electricity Initiative. By allowing independent users to deliver, manage, and generate electricity, microgrids act as a kind of laboratory for experiments that aren’t possible to perform on a working national energy grid.