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Why microgrids will be essential for smart cities

Submitted by doug.peeples on September 29, 2016

The reasons why microgrids haven't yet taken on an important role in ensuring our future smart cities have the robust, reliable electric networks they require – and why they will in time (sooner rather than later) – are addressed in our story below. – Doug Peeples

Microgrids have always generated vast differences of opinion: either they're a farfetched idea that will never work or they're going to provide a strategically essential piece of resilience to the primary electric grid and provide standalone or emergency backup power in a variety of situations. And be a tremendous benefit to smart cities in a number of ways.

Also debated is when or if microgrid technology will ever be ready to be adopted and marketed broadly. For smart grid pioneer, engineer and author Andres Carvallo, it's largely a matter of cost. But he also sees microgrids enjoying a surge in popularity. "More companies are building their own to meet their needs, whether in a building or on a campus – the military, research campuses, college campuses. Resilience is why microgrids are taking off." He said microgrids are attracting substantial interest from water utilities that are looking at building their own because their single highest cost is energy, and microgrids could offer a solution.

"The cost of building a microgrid has gone down by orders of magnitude over the past 10 years and it will do so again in the next 10." He made his comments during a Smart Cities Week panel discussion on microgrids and distributed energy.

A later discussion with panel moderator David Ciesa, senior director of global development for Council Leads Partner S&C Electric, yielded some comments more specifically related to microgrids and smart cities. S&C has worked with and deployed microgrids for a number of its utility customers, including Oncor.

Addressing the question of when microgrids will  be ready to go mainstream, Ciesa said he expects to see them as being more feasible than traditional means for its intended applications within five to 10 years. While he said controllers for microgrids are not quite what they could be, reliability isn't really the barrier for broader deployment.

He largely agreed with Carvallo's assessment, but went into more detail in his explanation. "We can handle the tech part. It's that the cost of incremental gains in reliability aren't feasible yet. It's coming though – and it (cost) will decrease quickly."

As for why microgrids will be essential for smart cities, Ciesa had a simple and striking comment. "To have a smart city you have to have a strong, robust, reliable infrastructure. Cities absolutely have to have electricity and communications.

"We do the electrical system. That's why we're involved in smart cities. You need the communications network and the energy network. You can have all the advanced systems you want, but if you don't have power you've got nothing." As he put it, microgrids will be essential for ensuring those technological advances will work.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.