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Energy Currents
A Blog by Enerdynamics

The U.S. Army Uses Microgrids to Provide Resiliency, Address Climate Change, and Control Costs

by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator

The U.S. Army manages more than 130 Army installations around the world to protect, support, and enable military operations. Imagine being a military commander at one of these in the height of a crisis when suddenly your base loses power from the grid. Computers and communications equipment crash while personnel struggle to crank up backup generators spread around the base. Meanwhile, you can’t get information on what’s happening. And once backup power is up and running, you are now worried about whether you have enough diesel fuel to run your generators until grid power is restored. In evaluating risks associated with climate change in 2022, the Army concluded it needed a better way. The result? A plan to install microgrids at all installations by 2035. Microgrids will enable each base to run all functions without grid power for multiple days.

The goals of the Army are to improve resiliency, address climate change, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions – all at a reasonable cost. To consider why microgrids were selected as the tool to achieve these goals, let’s review what a microgrid is.

Microgrids are small localized electric grids that can operate without being connected to the utility grid but can also operate interconnected to the utility grid. They comprise distributed energy resources including storage, demand response, and distributed generation. Also necessary is local control software that balances supply versus demand and manages system frequency and voltage.

The Army’s plan is to operate its bases connected with the utility grid during normal operations, but to be operable as a local grid when supply from the utility is no longer reliable. During normal operations, distributed resources, which are part of the microgrid, are used when it reduces the Army’s utility cost. For example, solar power can be used to offset utility supply purchases or to sell to the grid, and battery storage can be used to shift consumption from high-cost to lower-cost periods. During these times the microgrid master controller monitors costs and finds the optimal mix of local resources and utility supply. During emergency operations, the microgrid controller takes over to fully operate the system by matching supply with demand and managing frequency and voltage.

Let’s look at an example recently discussed at the Microgrid Knowledge Conference 2023. The Joint Forces Training Base—Los Alamitos in California is served by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E).  Last year, the U.S. Army contracted a privately funded microgrid to be built, owned, and operated by Bright Canyon Energy. Funding was available through various government grants along with a lease agreement that allowed Bright Canyon to profit from distributed energy generated by the microgrid and sold to SDG&E during normal operations. The microgrid assets can provide power to serve about 5,000 homes in the area surrounding the base. During emergency operations, the microgrid will supply the base’s needs for up to 14 days. The microgrid consists of 26 MW of solar power, 20 MW/40 MWh of battery storage, and 3 MW of Tier 4 diesel backup generators. Tier 4 includes the cleanest diesel generators available on the market. Using the microgrid controller, the microgrid can be operated to achieve resiliency as a first goal, but also to minimize greenhouse gas emissions while managing costs of supply.

Often technology developed for military needs later becomes technology we all adopt. Think of items like duct tape, digital photography, computers, and the internet as examples. Does the Army’s plan for microgrids represent just a unique need that isn’t applicable to the rest of us, or does it represent the future for all of us? According to a recent Wood Mackenzie study, the microgrids provided 10 GW of capacity by the end of 2022 and are expected to grow by an annual average of 19% per year through 2027. If this occurs, microgrids will make up about 2% of the total load peak in the U.S.

As costs for battery storage and other technologies drop, it is not hard to imagine residential and commercial developments offering microgrid connections to ensure reliability and reduce the risk of rising future supply costs. I, for one, might find that compelling as climate change increases hot spells and results in more volatile severe weather.

Want to learn more about DERs and microgrids in today's electricity landscape? Enerdynamics offers an online learning path titled Distributed Energy Resources, and for groups interested in live training we offer a live virtual seminar titled Distributed Energy Resources and Microgrids: Applications, Technologies, and Economics. Email or call 866-765-5432 ext. 700 for more details. 

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