How microgrids can boost renewable energy

By Ben Delman on March 24, 2016

Microgrids offer an opportunity to provide clean, local, equitable, affordable, and reliable energy. A microgrid is a sub-section of the electric grid that is designed to continue functioning on its own should the larger electric grid lose power.

Microgrids have been around a long time, but have become more popular in recent years. This is due to the growth of clean, distributed energy resources like solar, as well as improvements in storage technologies and the availability of smart electronics. In December, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) submitted a proposal to the Maryland Public Service Commission that would allow the utility to develop microgrids.

MD SUN filed comments on BGE’s microgrid proposal in late February, with the help of Earth Justice and Jordan Gerow of the Pace Energy and Climate Center. Our comments offer a detailed assessment of why BGE’s proposal, while a welcome attempt, insufficiently represents the potential microgrids offer to both a modern electric grid and to energy democratization. BGE’s proposal is heavily reliant on natural gas- and diesel-fired generation. It fails to incorporate customer load management, renewable energy generation, and energy storage. It also makes no mention of third-party microgrid providers.

Expanding evaluation criteria

Our submitted comments recommend that the Commission develop a set of selection criteria that is much broader than what BGE proposed. These criteria should identify opportunities for renewable energy, customer energy management, energy efficiency, and energy storage. Important criteria for consideration include:

Critical infrastructure

Microgrids offer the ability to provide vital services to the surrounding community when outages occur. Identifying locations that support critical infrastructure will ensure the maximum benefit from a microgrid. Critical infrastructure locations, such as hospitals, value reliable power and are incentivized to help pay for a microgrid project.

Existing distributed energy resources (“DERs”)

Placement of microgrids in locations where there are existing distributed energy resources can maximize the investment in a microgrid while reducing additional generation requirements. When the distributed solar generation coincides with the demands for energy on the same site, that location will require less microgrid generation during an outage event.

Competition and the role of the utility

In addition to the importance of these criteria for evaluating microgrid projects, MD SUN strongly believes that microgrid development should be open to other companies and to communities themselves. The utility’s role should be to facilitate the development of microgrids, provided through competitive bidding, and to optimize the grid for the impact of microgrids across its service territory. Utility participation in the market as a developer creates an incentive for the utility to try to limit competition by third party participants.