Microgrids: Energy independence (and money saved) for companies

Microgrids and their related renewable energy can help businesses shave energy costs and bolster the aging infrastructure

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"It's simple to just connect a distributed energy source into the grid, but the hugely hard part is to get them to not fight with each other," Duke Energy's Handley said.

Joshua Rhodes, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute, said microgrids can be a more affordable solution than ripping and replacing an aging grid.

"It may be that putting batteries in a neighborhood may be cheaper than upgrading transmission lines to allow power to flow backwards," Rhodes said. "That would defer upgrades. I'd bet that will be where microgrids first start showing up en masse."

Behind California, North Carolina is second in the nation for solar power deployments. As a result, Duke Energy has had to put the brakes on how much power was being transmitted back to the grid from distributed customer sources because it was unable to manage it, Handley said.

The key to controlling energy flowing from distributed power sources back into the electrical grid is the power inverter, an electronic device that changes direct current (DC) to usable alternating current (AC). Combined with either lithium-ion or flow batteries, an inverter and a power management system can regulate when to store energy and when to distribute it, better known as smart grid technology.

Smart grids are still in their early days, according to Rhodes.

"As soon as [utilities] have the ability to tweak demand, you can glean some economic value from it," Rhodes said. "They just haven't figured out how to fully monetize microgrids yet."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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