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Microgrids Offer Solutions for Military Installations and Local Communities


09/21/2011 11:00AM

Bigger is not always better, and sometimes small can be HUGE…

The lessons learned from the Northeast blackout of 2003 were re-learned in the Southwest recently when a massive operator-error-induced blackout shut down the electric grid from western Arizona to southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico. The economic damage caused has been estimated to be $80–$100 billion, affecting schools, universities, court systems, and the U.S. military.

In the San Diego area alone, the triumvirate of military installations, Naval Base San Diego, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, and Camp Pendleton were forced to resort to fossil-fuel generator power. But what if, when an event like the San Diego outage occurs, these essential assets could be immediately disengaged from the larger grid and begin to function as a self-sufficient entity drawing from a menu of energy sources and load management technologies, not suddenly reliant on diesel?

Microgrids, which can be defined as an interconnected set of electricity sources and electrical loads that operate under a common control authority, are a particular application of Smart Grid technologies. Because grid operators usually do not have authoritative control over the loads they serve, the “common control” aspect of this definition is what differentiates the grid from a microgrid.

In recent years, an emerging champion of the microgrid concept has been the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The operational requirements of the military—and especially its critical role during national emergencies—necessitate that it find ways to sustain base operations when power is out. In general, the military calls it an “energy security” strategy. According to government sources, this means having assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet operational and installation energy needs.

In July 2010, DOD entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a cooperative environment and create a “strategic partnership to enhance energy security.” Possible areas for collaboration cited in the MOU include energy efficiency, renewable energy, grid security, Smart Grid, energy storage, mobile/deployable power, and small modular reactor nuclear energy.

On the procurement front, the military has started issuing contracts for microgrids. Over the last year, both the Naval Facilities Office (NAVFAC) and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued microgrid contracts for the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. To further develop the concept, the Army has created the Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security program office, an R&D effort better known in DOD circles as SPIDERS. A May 2011 SPIDERS Request for Proposal describes a successful integration that “will include a fully functional control system for integration of variable generation sources (renewable energy) with energy storage, and effective system management of primary, backup, and renewable energy sources.”

Military microgrids represent a great opportunity to establish energy security at the base level, can pay for themselves by mitigating the financial losses due to outages, return electricity to the critical services of surrounding neighborhoods, and represent an area where we can create skilled jobs in the energy and electricity sector.

As more electricity resources become distributed, it will become increasingly important that we identify ways to optimize the local generation and end-use control of electric power and find a way to gracefully integrate this with normal grid operations. And military microgrids, along with rooftop solar panels, residential windmills, energy storage systems, and electric vehicles are all part of this equation.

Paul A. Molitor, Assistant Vice President, Smart Grid and Strategic Initiatives | paul.molitor@nema.org.