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Musings on Microgrids

Yakov Berenshteyn

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we’ve seen a renewed focus in the media on climate change. As it so often does, the conversation points to technology as a lever for both mitigation and adaptation.

Microgrids in particular are suddenly top of mind again, covered in MIT Technology Review, Fast Company, Christian Science Monitor, and Huffington Post in a span of just five days. These pieces praise microgrids for enabling distributed renewables (mitigation) and taking critical customers like hospitals off the main power grid in emergencies (adaptation).

While we applaud any effort to raise awareness of clean technology, it’s important not to have a knee-jerk response to climate events like Sandy. In the case of microgrids, it’s not what these authors wrote – but rather what they didn’t write – that has us giving a word of caution: the latest reports lay out microgrids’ great technological benefits, but give little advice as to how an institutional or commercial electricity customer should navigate the overwhelmingly complex regulatory structure behind utility operations in order to actually develop and deploy a microgrid.

In many regions of the US, the reality is that it will be up to the utilities and …

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Why Microgrids Are Smart

Josh Gould

A few weeks ago, intelligence agencies and IT security consultants became intimately familiar with something called Stuxnet.  Stuxnet is a computer virus that monitors and can reprogram industrial systems such as SCADA, a common system used to manage the electrical grid.  Like most computer viruses, the origins and purpose are a bit unclear, though many have speculated that the virus targeted Iran and the country’s suspected nuclear program.

What does any of this have to do with cleantech?  A lot, in fact.  First, it illustrates the fears many have had about the susceptibility of our power grid to cyber attacks.  The Department of Energy has been increasingly aware of these dangers, recently awarding $30M to improve cyber security.

Second, and less obviously, it is another selling point for microgrids.  Microgrids are localized mini-grids that have their own generation sources (often solar), can be paired with storage, and are connected to the larger (or “macro”) grid.  Picture, for example, a mall with rooftop solar panels providing power to the retail shops when it’s needed, selling excess power back onto the grid when it’s not needed, and buying power from the grid if necessary to supplement …