How Can Community Microgrids Reduce Energy Losses?

published Sep 29, 2021
2 min read

Community Microgrid

Energy losses are more common than many people may realize. Studies show that the U.S. wastes up to 68% of all energy through various inefficiencies. Thankfully, there are many potential solutions, with community microgrids being one of the most promising.

As their name suggests, microgrids are small power systems that can operate separately from the central grid. They typically provide electricity to a neighborhood or a few facilities, generating and distributing most if not all of these locations’ energy. Right now, microgrids account for less than 0.2% of electric production in the U.S., but they’re growing quickly.

Businesses and residential areas can use these smaller grids to reduce energy losses, ensuring continuous power and saving money. Here’s how.

Isolation From Central Grid Failures

The most straightforward way community microgrids reduce energy losses is by avoiding outages on the central grid. When the larger power network starts to fail, microgrids can disconnect from it in a practice called islanding. This stops failures from reaching the properties running on the microgrid.

Some microgrids include enough power generation infrastructure to keep the area isolated indefinitely. Others can supply energy through generators and batteries until workers restore the central grid. In either case, microgrids prevent locations from losing power, avoiding costly damages.

An outage can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on how long it lasts and which systems lose power. Quick responses can mitigate those expenses, and prevention through islanding can eliminate them.

Less Distance to Travel

Energy losses arise from more than just power outages, too. According to the Energy Information Administration, 0.87 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of power are lost during transmission and distribution. When electricity has to travel across long distances, some will phase out and leak into the environment.

Community microgrids reduce these losses by placing generation infrastructure closer to the facilities it powers. With less distance to travel between points, more of the original electricity can reach its intended target. These savings may seem insignificant on their own, but they add up over time.

Community microgrids can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using more of the energy they generate. These areas don’t have to produce as much electricity since they use what they have more efficiently.

Assistance to Central Grids

A community microgrid can also mitigate energy losses in larger central grids. When connected to larger power networks, they can supply power if the main system fails. While they can’t sustain the entire system given their smaller size, they can support critical infrastructure, facilitating faster recoveries.

Microgrids proved their usefulness in situations like this in 2013, when severe weather knocked out a power line outside San Diego. A microgrid in town powered a gas station, library and retirement community until the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. could restore power. Without this assistance, the outage could have had far more severe consequences.

Microgrids could power critical energy facilities in other areas, making it easier for workers to restore the central grid. As a result, outages won’t last as long, minimizing energy losses.

More Efficient Energy Production

A more indirect way in which community microgrids reduce losses is by enabling more efficient electricity generation. More than 60% of electricity globally comes from fossil fuels, which release considerable amounts of heat during production. It typically dissipates into the atmosphere, becoming lost energy, but microgrids can use it.

Since end-users are closer to energy production sources in a microgrid, they can more feasibly take advantage of this heat. For example, communities could place water tanks nearby to use this radiating energy to provide heating. Alternatively, nearby buildings could construct large windows or thermal chimneys for natural ventilation.

Nearby facilities become far more energy-efficient when they capture this passive energy. They also prevent losses by using heat that a larger grid would have wasted.

Community Microgrids Improve Energy Resilience

Community microgrids often appear in discussions about improving sustainability or independence from central infrastructure. Their benefits go beyond that, though. Communities can significantly reduce energy losses by shifting to microgrids, becoming more resilient.

With fewer losses, businesses will see greater savings, and residents will enjoy more consistent energy delivery. Outages will be less common and impactful. As the world relies more heavily on electric infrastructure, these benefits become increasingly difficult to ignore.