If you’re interested in planning a community microgrid, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn how you can get started on the journey towards creating a resilient and sustainable energy future for your community.
The demand for reliable and resilient energy sources has never been greater. Traditional centralized power grids are susceptible to a variety of challenges, including extreme weather events, cyberattacks, and failure due to infrastructure aging. In response to these vulnerabilities, many communities are exploring the concept of community microgrids as a means to enhance energy reliability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and foster community resilience.
Understanding the Basics
Before diving into the planning process, it’s important to have a solid grasp of what a community microgrid is and why it’s beneficial. A microgrid generally is a localized energy system that can operate independently or in conjunction with the main power grid. It typically includes distributed energy resources (DERs) such as solar panels, energy storage systems, and generators. A community microgrid is one that is meant to provide energy resilience to important community facilities that offer critical services.
Here are some key advantages of community microgrids.
Microgrids are designed to withstand power outages and provide a reliable source of electricity during emergencies. This kind of resilience is crucial for critical facilities like hospitals, emergency shelters, and essential services, but it can also help communities recover more quickly and effectively from grid loss or other disasters.
Microgrids can create direct economic impact in communities by reducing operating costs, creating revenue opportunities, and avoiding infrastructure upgrades. Community microgrids can also stimulate the local economy by creating jobs, attracting employers and other investments, and fostering innovation in the energy sector.
Incorporating renewable energy sources like solar or wind can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to a more sustainable and eco-friendly community.
Microgrids generate and store energy locally. When communities reduce their dependence on external power sources, they also lower their vulnerability to adverse events and mitigate the impact of fluctuations in energy markets.
Now that you understand the benefits, let’s explore the steps to get started with planning a community microgrid.
Step 1: Define Your Goals and Objectives
The first and most crucial step in planning a community microgrid is to define your goals and objectives. Some communities will feel comfortable leading this activity by themselves, but others will need help from a professional. When thining about your microgrid goals and objectives, consider the following questions:
- What is the primary purpose of your microgrid? Is it for resilience during power outages? Cost savings? Environmental sustainability? Energy independence? A combination of these?
- What critical facilities or services will the microgrid support during emergencies? Will the microgrid support some or all of the electric loads?
- What is your budget for the project, and how will you secure funding?
- What renewable energy resources are available in your area, and how will you integrate them into the microgrid?
- Do you plan to operate the microgrid independently of the main grid or in conjunction with it?
Having a clear understanding of your goals and objectives for the microgrid will guide your decision-making process throughout the planning and implementation stages. This process should bring the project concept into focus.
Step 2: Establish Partnerships
Building a community microgrid is a collaborative effort that involves engaging with various stakeholders such as community members, government agencies, and utilities. Establishing partnerships with each is crucial for the project’s success.
Involving local governments in community microgrid planning is crucial for regulatory support, permits, access to relevant resources, and alignment with community development goals. It also ensures that the project benefits both residents and the broader community while complying with necessary regulations.
Many state governments want to see energy resilience projects get built. Contact your state energy office to see if any programs are available that could, for example, provide technical expertise or offset the cost of a microgrid feasibility study.
Some utilities will happily provide technical expertise and access to grid infrastructure, or discuss potential business arrangements. Others may want to limit their involvement until an interconnection application is made. Still others may be downright hostile to the idea of a microgrid in their territory. It’s best to know your utility’s position up front, and to work toward a win-win.
Engage in community outreach to garner support and gather input from the community members. Address concerns and communicate the benefits of the microgrid project to build consensus and create a sense of ownership among the community. Use their input and feedback to refine the project concept and design. It may be advisible or even required to organize a formal stakeholder process.
Step 3: Conduct a Feasibility Study
Once you’ve established your goals, it’s time to conduct a feasibility study to assess the technical, economic, and regulatory aspects of your community microgrid. A well-executed feasibility study provides a solid foundation for decision-making and secures support from stakeholders and financiers. It should provide design options and highlight critical decision points.
Most communities will work with a consultant to develop the feasibilty study. The consultant should perform modeling and simulation to identify microgrid configurations meet to the goals and objectives. One of the best ways communities can support the feasibilty study outcome is by sharing their electricity usage and billing information—either with bills or access to their utility accounts.
The following are key considerations of the feasibily study.
Evaluate the available renewable energy resources, existing infrastructure, and the technical requirements for integrating DERs into your microgrid.
Calculate the expected costs and benefits of your microgrid project, including initial investments, operational expenses, and potential revenue streams. Explore financing options, grants, and incentives that may be available.
Regulatory and Legal Framework
Understand the local and state regulations governing microgrids, renewable energy installations, and interconnection with the main grid. Ensure that your project complies with all relevant laws and standards.
Assess the environmental impact of your microgrid project and explore ways to minimize its carbon footprint.
What Comes Next?
Once the feasibility study is complete, you’ll be readyto make informed decisions about how to proceed. The process will of course vary from community to community and project to project, but in general, the following steps will be required.
Develop a business model
Identify equipment costs, infrastructure costs, and revenues. Explore funding options such as federal subsidies, state or utility incentives, grants, loans, bonds, and public-private partnerships. Develop cash flow models to support the investability of the project.
Design and construct the microgrid
Complete engineering design of the microgrid. Obtain all necessary permits and approvals. Hire qualified contractors and oversee the construction process to ensure that the microgrid is built according to the design specifications and within budget. Implement rigorous testing and commissioning procedures to verify the system’s functionality and safety. This can be done with a single RFP or in progressive steps with multiple RFPs.
Operate and maintain the microgrid
Establish a comprehensive operations and maintenance plan to ensure its continued reliability and performance. Regularly monitor and maintain the system, conduct periodic safety inspections, and update the control software as needed. Continuously monitor and optimize microgrid operations. Implement advanced monitoring systems and data analytics tools to track energy generation, consumption, and grid performance. Use this data to make informed decisions and identify opportunities for further improvements.
Market and promote the microgrid
Offer incentives to businesses to connect the microgrid. Showcase the microgrid’s capabilities to community members. Promote the community’s enhanced resilience and sustainability to potential employers and businesses.
Planning a community microgrid is a complex but highly rewarding endeavor that can lead to improved energy resilience and sustainability and create economic opportunity. By defining your goals and objectives, establishing partnerships, and conducting a feasibility study, you can lay the foundation for a brighter, more sustainable energy future for your community. It also helps to have an experienced microgrid developer help you think through everything. If you’re ready to have a conversation, please feel free to contact us to discuss your project idea.