The traditional electricity grid needs an upgrade. It was designed decades ago to funnel electricity from large power plants burning coal and natural gas. But as renewable energy booms, more power is flowing from smaller, dispersed sources like wind and solar farms, and even individual homes and businesses. To take advantage of this progress and to pave the way for even more carbon-free energy in the future, we have to overhaul the grid. It has to become greener, by connecting to more carbon-free energy sources. It also needs to be more reliable and resilient, able to provide power—especially to essential sites like hospitals and military facilities—during and after disruptions or disasters.
Technology is rapidly driving the transition to smart grids, which have the potential to meet all three challenges. At the same time, they introduce new challenges to grid security, reliability, and load management. Intel®-based platform solutions using IoT technologies like AI, machine learning, and Big Data provide analytics, automatic control, and other tools to manage new energy assets.
In particular, massive conventional grids are connecting with low-voltage microgrids, which help make electricity use more flexible and efficient. The idea of small-scale electric systems dates back to 1882, when Thomas Edison's coal-fired Manhattan Pearl Street Station in New York City served 82 customers within a radius of a few blocks.1
What Is a Microgrid?
A microgrid is a small-scale, local energy system that can disconnect from the traditional utility grid and operate independently. The ability to break off and keep working autonomously means a microgrid can serve as a sophisticated backup power system during grid repairs or other emergencies that lead to widespread power outages. Without any large infrastructure to maintain or repair, a microgrid is effectively hardened against storms or natural disasters.
A microgrid can also integrate various distributed energy resources (DER) into the grid, including clean energy sources. Since wind and solar power output vary with weather and time of day, it's useful to be able to draw power when they're available but also have other options when they're not.
These dual functions—backup and stability—help microgrids balance the need to provide reliable energy with the need to reduce carbon emissions.
How a Microgrid Works
Current microgrid technology is relatively simple, with a few key elements.
Like a traditional grid, energy generation is the heart of a microgrid system. This can range from diesel generators and batteries, the most common sources at the moment, to power generated by renewable resources such as solar panels, wind farms, fuel cells, or other sources of renewable energy.
The point of common coupling (PCC) is where a microgrid connects to the main grid. In connected mode, the two systems operate in parallel, with the PCC maintaining equal voltage levels in both. The PCC can also allow the microgrid to import and export electricity from the parent grid in response to appropriate price signals, utilizing energy storage mechanisms such as batteries.
If there is a problem with the main grid, a switch can disconnect the grids either manually or automatically. In island mode, the microgrid can still provide enough power to serve critical customer loads, even if the main grid is offline. The machine learning capability of AI software helps to continuously optimize the process.
IoT products can make the grid smarter, safer, more secure, and more reliable, all while lowering costs for customers. Utilities that need to keep voltage and current at steady levels use Intel® architecture-based platforms to identify performance issues. Smart meters and sensors embedded in power lines can help prevent power outages, while other monitoring and predictive maintenance solutions for transformers and pumps reduce risk and cost.
Microgrid projects respond to a wide range of drivers...and offer developing countries and isolated communities an alternative to expensive, polluting fuels.
Use Cases for Microgrids
Where are microgrids most useful? It depends on the situation and scale. A campus microgrid serves a single user such as a university, hospital, prison, or industrial facility. Community and district microgrids serve multiple customers. Both are fully integrated into the local energy grid. At the other end of the scale, a nanogrid can supply a single building. “Off-grid” systems are entirely disconnected from local utility networks, useful at remote sites, islands, or other places where economic or technical issues make a PCC impossible.
Depending on their size and location, microgrid projects respond to a wide range of drivers, whether it's a utility's need for grid optimization and ancillary services or a military installation that requires uninterrupted electricity. They offer developing countries and isolated communities an alternative to expensive, polluting fuels.
Intel® Architecture-Based Solutions for Microgrids
Intel® architecture-based advanced grid management solutions help utilities and other customers make their energy grids more reliable, stable, and efficient. The biggest challenge in all types of microgrid is the cost of deployment; having to install and integrate a wide array of systems can kill a project's ROI. That's why the ability to reuse the same software on multiple platforms is critical. Intel® architecture offers a flexible computing infrastructure that's quick to install and compatible with a diverse range of software and hardware providers.
For all their benefits, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar create instability in the grid, raising operation costs. Intel's IoT technologies are driving the digitalization of those assets to meet customer needs. Making it easier for utilities to collect more data and run predictive analytics helps them reduce their operation costs and stay profitable.
The result? Increased grid reliability, safety, productivity, and consumer satisfaction. As a key piece of this puzzle, microgrids play an essential role in keeping the lights on.