Islands of energy: the future of generation

David Hall, Power Systems VP UK & Ireland at Schneider Electric

Climate change is surely the greatest threat to face humanity in thousands of years. Adverse climatic conditions and freak weather events can create massive disruption for people, businesses and the energy network. We experienced this in the UK only last month, when trainlines across London were closed to prevent the tracks warping amid record high temperatures.

Addressing climate change demands collective action. To meet the country’s 2050 net zero carbon target, policymakers and enterprises must work together to ensure our energy mix is renewable, clean and sustainable at the local level. However, we need also to be mindful of grid resilience. Renewables are the future, but their unpredictability can cause imbalances and uncertainty in supply unless properly mitigated.

Power has never been more important for the development of our cities, towns and people. Encouraging renewable generation is crucial, but we must do it in a way that doesn’t disrupt current power needs. Local authorities and operators can achieve this by fostering greater self-sufficiency and grid localisation. The importance of microgrid and battery technology shouldn’t be overlooked.

Demand and supply

Populations centres don’t just need lots of energy, they need a reliable supply of it every minute and hour of the day. Our relationship with energy is changing as our old understanding of consumption and peak times is turned on its head.

The once one-way flow of energy has become multidirectional as many energy prosumers start making their own. What’s more, when they aren’t trading their own energy during the day, they’re charging their electric vehicles overnight. As consumers have become not only consumers but generators of energy, we’re reminded that energy is not an inexhaustible resource, but one we need to manage carefully.

All this makes energy supply security critical. When energy reliability is tied to mobility, a power cut or interruption can cause massive disruption with far-reaching consequences for local communities. The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates the value of load lost (VOLL) in the event of a UK blackout to be over £6,000 an hour at peak times. This a cost felt by local businesses and households, and one they could do certainly without.

This is why the growing use of renewables can be problematic. As renewable energy plants best operate in isolated areas, modern energy production has scattered, forcing grid extension at a time when demand has become centralised towards our growing urban centres.

Renewable sources such as solar and wind can be seriously affected by sudden changes in the weather. If output suffers, this can lead to imbalances in the grid. Operators are experts at balancing supply and demand across their network, but they can’t create power from nothing. Inevitably some areas will experience supply difficulties and, in the worst cases, failure.

A declaration of energy independence

As renewable energy sources grow in popularity, the limitations of grid capacity will only increase. Ultimately, in a future of dispersed renewable energy generation communities need a backup to depending on the main grid. Fortunately, greater grid localisation offers a path to both improved supply security and energy sustainability.

Having a decentralised, smart microgrid system connected but detachable from the main grid can prove highly beneficial for a community. A microgrid has the ability to island itself from the main grid to become self-sufficient. That means when the main grid encounters a problem, such as a lack of supply from renewable sources, the microgrid is quickly decoupled but can still continue to deliver energy from the local sources it’s connected to.

Microgrids can be used as stand-alone power generation sources — as they are in both rural or off-grid electrification, or disconnected, remote geographies — or, as back-up power stations that ensure an uninterrupted power supply to critical systems. New financing models, such as microgrids-as-a-service, mean communities can invest in a self-contained microgrid system without any upfront costs.

Access to a microgrid not only delivers power resilience, it can also encourage greater local renewables adoption and help communities achieve their environmental and sustainability goals. In a microgrid, energy is typically generated from renewable sources like wind turbines, solar panels and sometimes tidal power. In fact, if the community is able to operate completely detached from the wider grid then it’s possible for it to be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy.

Often a familiar component of microgrids, battery storage also has a vital role to play in mitigating against renewable uncertainty. As the technology becomes cheaper, it is growing into an economically viable route for reducing the level of demand on the grid. The ability to store the energy generated from distributed, renewable sources provides a dependable power source regardless of weather conditions. Battery storage also provides a valuable reservoir of backup power, which can ensure a consistent power supply when parts of the grid are shut off.

As Oxford’s Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire) shows, the future of British energy lies in the interplay of clean, local energy sources on a smart electrical grid. The greater localisation of generation and distribution not only boosts energy reliability, it supports greater renewables adoption. Microgrid and battery storage technologies afford new-found energy independence, cost-optimisation and reliability, ensuring that the lights stay on even when the wind isn’t blowing.