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Microgrids

Behind most reliable microgrids remains a tried and proven technology – a diesel generator capable of providing electricity when renewables can't meet demand.


When it comes to the future of electricity generation, there are many predictions and priorities. The common denominator: diesel generators continue to play an important role, especially when it comes to small-scale and emergency backup electricity generation. From issues relating to electricity reliability to climate change resiliency, more communities and municipalities have plans to install small, off-grid electricity generation capabilities. These “microgrids” quite often incorporate renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. And standing behind most of these microgrid systems is one more vital yet often unnoticed technology - a diesel generator.

Caterpillar Microgrid

It should come as no surprise that power outages result in severe economic disruptions. Weather-related events that knock out power are predicted to increase and their economic costs, already estimated to be up to $33 billion just between the years of 2003 to 2012, are expected to rise. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 and Superstorm Sandy in the eastern United States in 2012 offer examples of the severe consequences of extended electricity disruptions.

Meeting Different Needs in Different Areas

Cities looking to plan for the future consider resiliency and adaptation strategies that include microgrids. Severe storms that knock out power from a microgrid impact a much smaller area and can be restored much more quickly than traditional grid infrastructure that spans miles. Plus, microgrids could even transfer excess power to nearby neighborhoods still suffering from a power outage.

Many rural regions across the country do not have access to the electricity grid and have begun to rely on microgrid systems for prime power to ensure more reliable electricity generation. Such systems often incorporate renewable sources of electricity generation including wind and solar. Yet the diesel generator remains a key component in even renewable-based microgrids given the inconsistency of renewables weighed against diesel technology’s durability, and the fuel’s energy density and ease of delivery. The wind does not blow consistently nor does the sun shine on a reliable timetable across much of the country, and when these renewables are available may not be when power is needed. In such cases, clean diesel generators are available to backstop these renewables and enable microgrids to operate reliably.

However, one of the drawbacks to the use of diesel engines for prime power is the expense of the fuel. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alaska, the state with the highest electricity costs. Diesel engines are quite frequently the sole technology under the roof of many powerhouses in remote locations across the state. To help reduce this expense and harness the available, almost-free renewable sources of electricity, a growing number of communities in rural Alaska are installing windmills and solar panels. Yet, these communities will continue to rely on their diesel generators for most of their electricity needs, especially when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

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For other communities, needs are more focused on creating a market for sustainable sources of power generation, primarily wind and solar. Again, microgrid technologies are one technology avenue. Recently, the New Jersey Board of Public Utility Commissioners provided grants to town centers to install these technologies.

Meeting Short-Term Needs and Special Events

Microgrids can also be set up to support short-term or one-time events. An interesting application of a diesel-backed sustainable microgrid was seen during Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, California. A large bank of near-zero emissions ‘Tier 4’ diesel generators operating on 100 percent renewable diesel fuel powered Super Bowl City. This technology combination helped reduce the event’s greenhouse gas emissions along with other criteria pollutants, while still fully powering the event.

From supplying grid resiliency and energy assurance to promoting sustainable technologies, microgrids help provide power to remote communities, larger urban areas and even special events. In almost every instance, whether for prime power or for emergency backup, the diesel generator is a key element in achieving this vision.

 

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