How Solar Powered Micro-Grids are Changing the Way We Use Energy
What if you never had to experience another energy blackout, or pay another power bill, or rely on the municipal power supply? No, we’re not talking about moving to the sticks and living in an off-grid cabin. We’re talking about a sophisticated piece of technology that allows you to generate and retain all of your own power without paying for power from the local utility company.
This technique being implemented by hospitals, universities, homes, and businesses all over the world is known as the micro-grid. In fact, the technology isn’t actually new at all, but with the rising popularity of privately owned solar panels, more and more people are realizing that a micro-grid is the perfect solution to managing their own power and being free from reliance on the utility grid.
Power Plants vs Solar Panels
Power plants are big, expensive, sometimes dangerous, and produce way more energy than most companies, organizations, or even whole neighborhoods could reasonably use. It makes sense for only large utilities to own and operate them because they’re not practical for local private use and ownership. They are a central energy production system capable of supplying huge amounts of power to homes and businesses far away from each plant by way of the public grid.
Solar panels, on the other hand, are small, affordable, safe to work with, and each can produce a portion of the energy needed for any single business or home. This makes them incredibly practical for private ownership and the recent rise in availability and drop in costs means that almost anyone can afford to kit out their building, vehicle, or land with at least a little bit of solar power. Those with larger installations can provide enough energy to power the entire building, facility, or neighborhood, at least while the sun is shining. Even the utilities are installing fields full of solar and batteries.
The one thing power plants and solar panels have in common, other than energy generation, is that they can’t do anything on their own with the power they create. It has to go somewhere. With power plants, energy flows into the shared grid connecting homes and businesses which all consume that power. Solar panels also need a power structure and that’s where micro-grids come in.
By definition, a micro-grid is any power infrastructure that can be connected to or separated from the primary power grid and remain operational as an “energy island”. Hospitals often use micro-grids in conjunction with emergency generators to prevent blackouts from stopping life support machines, turning off lights in the middle of surgery, and cutting them off from their computer system. Normally, their grid would pull from the power plant supply of energy but when this isn’t available, they separate and work from the generator for a while. In hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, solar micro-grids supplied power for some people long before the public utility grid came back online.
However, solar power micro-grids are becoming increasingly popular for both homes and businesses that never needed a backup generator. After all, why suffer a blackout while the sun is shining on your solar array and producing plenty of energy to power your lights and computers? While many people connect their solar panels directly to the main grid and sell their surplus energy for power bill credits via net-metering, a micro-grid allows you to either connect and sell or keep the solar energy for your own private use instead. Generating, storing and using your own power is called self consumption, and these systems can also supply backup power when the grid fails.
Becoming Entirely Self-Sufficient
Of course, once you start generating and using your own energy only your budget can stop you from becoming entirely self-sufficient and breaking off from the main grid entirely. But what about when the sun isn’t shining? With micro-grids, you can channel the day’s energy into your own power demands but you’ll also need batteries to collect the excess on sunny days to keep you going during nights and cloudy weather.
Fortunately, micro-grid packages come with an energy storage system to do just that. With enough power generation and a properly sized battery bank, you’re well on the way to complete energy self-sufficiency.
Micro-Grids for Neighborhoods
While we’ve been talking about the benefits of a micro-grid for a single homes and buildings, there are no rules saying how big or small a micro-grid has to be or how many people it can support. If you love the idea of a micro-grid but find it cost prohibitive, share a multi-unit home, or dream of building a larger energy self-sufficient community, you can build a shared micro-grid with others nearby. Whole residential neighborhoods are already pooling their resources to set up a local micro-grid that will be powered by dozens of residential solar panels and batteries. This could be the future of local distributed power.
Upsetting the Power Structure
Renewable energy used efficiently for private homes and businesses is a wonderful thing. The less energy we need from the power plants, the fewer fossil fuels will be burned and the closer we get to repairing the environment, not to mention avoiding costly disasters involved with city-wide power outages. However, there is one group that actually suffers from the increasing implementation of solar panels and micro-grids: The power companies themselves. For decades they have been the stalwart defenders between us and the un-powered darkness and have planned for production and expenses many years in advance. The difference is that now any particular home or business can install solar panels and batteries thus becoming a wild-card.
Will customers need more power this year? If so, how much? And if they do draw from the grid, are they giving back surplus solar, and if so, are they paying anything on their monthly bill? All these question marks make these slow changing industries understandably nervous, but it’s also necessary that they adapt to the fast-approaching future. While they may not like the variability of independently owned renewable energy, it’s also a change they can’t and shouldn’t stop. Some utilities see the writing on the wall and are installing their own massive battery banks to stabilize the grid in these times of distributed generation.
How you can get started
Solar power and micro-grids aren’t just a fad, they’re the most practical modern energy solution available today. There has never been a better time to reduce or even eliminate the power bill and start on the path toward energy resiliency. mtvSolar routinely installs self-sufficient hybrid residential battery backup systems that automatically operate off-grid when the utility fails. Because the batteries are only used during an outage, they last a very long time. In the mid-Atlantic area of WV, MD, PA and VA, there are no time of use charges for residential customers and they have full 1-to-1 net metering, however should that change having a battery backup system also permits self consumption.
For more information about solar panel and storage installation, contact us today! Mountain View Solar is your local fully qualified and experienced contractor, with offices in Berkeley Springs, WV and Winchester, VA.