Microgrids: The innovation we need for a livable future

Microgrids: The innovation we need for a livable future

By: Chris Davidson, Director, Hybrid Power Solutions at Siemens Industry, Inc.

As Earth Month events unfold around the country, Siemens USA is looking closely at technologies in our portfolio that are clear choices for addressing climate change and reducing America’s carbon footprint. Among those technologies, one stands out: microgrids. This technology already has an established track record that bodes well for future use.


Since 2017, the microgrid at Blue Lake Rancheria, in Blue Lake, California has been generating electricity. And since 2020, the Princeton Island Grid, a microgrid in Princeton, New Jersey, has been operating at full capacity. These are two very different microgrids, in both size and deployment, but each one is key to the people it serves. The Black Lake Rancheria microgrid helps deliver important residential, health, education, and other services to a recognized tribe, in a community founded in 1908. Princeton Island Grid helps generate power at the U.S. headquarters for Siemens Technology.


The MGMS (Microgrid Management System) digital controller at Blue Lake Rancheria is the only Siemens product in the microgrid, which is powered by 420-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) array paired with 500kW/ 1MW hour of battery storage and a 1MW backup generator. The Princeton Island Grid has an 845-kilowatt PV array the size of an office parking lot, with a 500 kilowatt/1MW hour battery energy storage system, and is 100-percent a Siemens installation, both hardware and software. Both projects exemplify the breakthrough value that microgrids present to communities, municipalities, and businesses for greener energy distribution. Microgrids are, in fact, a building block of future energy delivery. 


Microgrids translate to energy savings, resiliency, and sustainability


Communities and businesses should be interested in microgrids because of the ways the technology can deliver on energy savings, resiliency, and sustainability. Microgrids, which can combine both solar- and wind-power capabilities, can generate power and energy during optimal production times that can be stored on site in batteries and used later. When equipped with the right distribution equipment, they can go into “island mode” by disconnecting from the larger power grid, enabling localized control of energy use and long-term energy-use strategy. They can also potentially sell electricity into the larger grid market when allowed. 


The degrees of energy savings, resiliency, and sustainability of a microgrid depend on the goals put in place for its use. For example, Blue Lake Rancheria’s goals for its microgrid included support for seven days of islanded operation (disconnected from the utility grid), 25-percent reduction in consumer energy cost, and a CO2 reduction of approximately 195 tons per year. Occupants at the Princeton Island Grid wanted greater than 50-percent energy savings, notable CO2 reduction, and several hours of operational resiliency (island mode) available at all times. All three of these were achieved in 2020.

Communities and businesses should be interested in microgrids because of the ways the technology can deliver on energy savings, resiliency, and sustainability. Microgrids are, in fact, a building block of future energy delivery.

Microgrids can help address climate change directly


The consequences of climate change are playing out across the United States. Wildfires in California, brought on by drought and human activity, have triggered lengthy power outages. Gulf states have seen extreme fluctuations in seasonal temperatures and a terrible sequence of hurricanes over the past 15+ years. The northeast is seeing worsening flood events after major storms. Climate events like these can cause loss of life, community, and property, and for businesses loss of production, operations, and customer support.

In the face of climate change and unpredictable impacts of outsized climate events, microgrids can help mitigate loss of power and energy in variety of ways. Local control and decision-making support resiliency, as does the smaller, localized footprint of a microgrid. For example, during Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the Princeton Island Grid suffered just a five-minute outage, while the larger regional utility grid saw power losses of longer than 24 hours. Battery-stored energy strengthens resiliency and sustainability in times of natural disaster.  


Microgrids embody and advance the digital transformation


One major key to success for both Blue Lake and Princeton comes from the digital experience built into their systems. The right digital platform and control system is the foundation of a microgrid. A microgrid can have a mix of generation technology such as solar, battery storage, engine, fuel cell (electrochemical), wind turbine, and others.  Each generation technology has its own unique benefit, but when you combine them together, they need something to orchestrate how they function as a system to achieve the goals set by the owner.  Proven microgrid controls is how it all comes together. Blue Lake Rancheria uses Siemens Spectrum Power 7 MGMS controls and the Princeton Island Grid uses a Siemens SICAM A8000 MGC controller.


The next big technological step is combining demand- and supply-side assets together in a cloud-computing platform, using real-time data from each. This “energy IP” can leverage both energy reduction and on-site or virtual generation to deliver a lower, more sustainable cost of energy while also relieving grid constraints.

Beyond that, enabling AI options like digital twin can analyze known conditions and compare them to active or upcoming grid conditions that optimize the dispatch of energy and demand to a set of customer targets or KPIs without requiring operator intervention or supervision. In other words, the system learns as it goes using data to increase efficiency. 


Microgrids will enable the creation of “eco-districts”


Municipalities that aim to integrate sustainable, resilient, development and social equity into their plans and reduce the ecological footprint of a neighborhood, urban area, or region can use microgrids to create an “eco-district”—a specific community that focuses on connectivity and sustainable technology to impact how they live, work, and play.


The eco-district capitalizes on localized energy by using renewable and sustainable energy delivery but does not rely solely on distributed energy as its main electricity source. Rather, the eco-district works closely with the utilities to find the right balance of both traditional centralized generation along with distributed energy so that the entire community’s needs are met. 


Microgrids will be central to eMobility infrastructure


eMobility will involve the next big push for microgrid deployment, specifically where CaaS (“charging as a service”) is required or being offered. If managers of fleet of electric vehicles subscribe to charging service, they’re going to need to know their vehicles can get from point “a” to point “b” and still find a way to charge up for the return trip. If the grid goes down, the energy supplier needs a back up to the utility. This is where microgrid technology is going to expand. CaaS charging hubs should consider microgrids with a mix of generating solutions such as PV, energy storage, fuel cells, wind, and natural gas reciprocating engines to compliment the sustainability theme of electrical vehicles and deliver uninterrupted charging.


Several states are incentivizing the move to electric fleets, so we’re going to see growth in commercial eMobility for sure. However, keeping an e-fleet running requires very different planning than a gas-powered fleet. Microgrid resiliency and sustainability will enable predictability and efficiency to e-fleet management. 



As we begin to see and live through the deep impacts of climate change, as well as endure the severe disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have no choice but to accelerate our innovations about energy creation and distribution. Blue Lake Rancheria and the Princeton Island Grid are models for distributed energy sustainability, resilience and decarbonization over the next 15 to 20 years. Microgrid technology will be essential to a livable future.