Could microgrids be the grid of the future? This week we do a deep dive into what microgrids are, how they work, and how they could help us make the electricity grid more reliable and resilient. Our guest is Cecilia Klauber, Power Systems Engineer in the Cyber and Infrastructure Resilience Group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Here are some highlights from the episode:
Key news headlines this week:
- The Mauna Loa volcanic eruption disrupts atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements;
- US Department of Interior awarded $75M to tribes to relocate from climate-threatened areas
- Climate Trace was announced at COP27, a new platform showing point-source CO2 emissions.
Highlights of the Microgrids conversation:
- A microgrid is a local grid, with local generation, sufficient control capabilities to support local load, and can disconnect from the traditional power grid
- DOE sees a future with a lot more microgrids. Why? Microgrids are a great way to manage distributed devices.
- DER vs Microgrid: Microgrids have control and disconnect. Solar panels are ‘grid following’, they can’t manage and control the local frequency of the grid.
- Into the future: hopefully utilities have microgrids in case central grids need to turn off for a bit. There may be hesitancy, DER might mean fewer electrons utilities get paid for, but losses on the system is a big deal. DER = less transmission needed = fewer losses on the line, which means a cost savings for the utility if they have utility-owned DER and microgrids. Microgrids also support reliability and resilience.
[00:00:00] James Lawler: Welcome everyone to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the practical on-the-ground solutions that we’ll need to address the global climate crisis and achieve a net-zero emissions future. I’m James Lawler, and if you like this episode, leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts, share this episode with your friends, or tell us what you think firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today in our interview segment, we’re going to explore microgrids. What is a microgrid? Why are they becoming more prevalent? How can they help our traditional grid system be more reliable and resilient? Our interview will be with Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s Cecilia Klauber, but first our news segment, This Week in Climate News.
Today to discuss what’s going on in climate news, I’m joined by Dina Cappiello, who is Managing Director of Communications and Marketing at RMI, formerly Rocky Mountain Institute. Dina, thanks so much for joining us.
[00:00:55] Dina Cappiello: Thanks so much, James. It’s really great to be here.
[00:00:57] James Lawler: So we’ve had folks from RMI, a number of people actually, on the Climate Now Podcast in the past. But Dina, this is your first time on here, so maybe you could give us a brief introduction to yourself, what your background is…
[00:01:09] Dina Cappiello: Yeah, great! I’m Dina, hi everybody, and I lead communications and marketing for RMI. And my background actually is as a climate and environmental journalist, so I spent 15 years covering environmental issues including climate change, back when we actually had to couch that on the AP wire. My background prior to that was actually environmental science, so I went to Columbia University for a dual masters in earth and environmental science journalism to actually be trained to write and report on these issues. And for the last seven years I’ve been doing basically sustainability communications.
[00:01:50] James Lawler: That’s awesome. And so we’re really excited, hopefully Dina will be a regular staple in This Week in Climate News going forward. So we’ll have the benefit of your vantage point over all of this, all of these issues. And actually Dina, you were just recently at COP, would love to hear what were some of the highlights from someone who was actually on the ground?
[00:02:10] Dina Cappiello: Well, it was like all COPs, and every COP that I’ve been to as a reporter and now on the communication side is always chaotic. But I think there were a couple of major things. I think one of the most surprising things was really the reaffirmation of the 1.5 C target. I really thought that earlier this year, many scientists and researchers and government bodies were kind of casting doubt on that target, that there would’ve been a change and there was definitely pushback, that the pushback would’ve had some success, and it really didn’t. We signed on, along with a bunch of companies, other NGOs, and business groups saying that we cannot backtrack on this and we have to do everything we possibly can to stick to it.
You saw the G20 say that as well and the UN say at least less than two degrees. And so I think that was a real effort to say that we can’t lessen our aspirations or weaken our aspirations because of what is at stake. So I think that was a really big one. I think the Indonesia JETP coal announcement, which is really gonna be a model for blended finance, which is the combination of private and public financing, to decarbonize one of the most coal intensive countries in the world. So I think those two things, I think obviously Climate Trace —
[00:03:46] James Lawler: — which we’ll talk about today, I’m very excited to —
[00:03:50] Dina Cappiello: Yeah, Al Gore’s group, was great. I think a lot on workforce and Green Jobs came out, and really the message of — and people don’t think about it this way, but in order for the transition to occur on the African continent, you need millions of jobs, and there’s just not the manpower to do that. And I think that’s super interesting in light of some of the narrative we hear in the US, which is that this transition is gonna cost jobs, and it kind of is a flip. And so there was an expansion of training programs for a clean tech workforce beyond the Pacific, into Africa and the Caribbean, which was huge. Recognizing that they need training and upskilling to chart their own climate destiny.
[00:04:41] James Lawler: A couple of headlines this week that caught our attention. One was the eruption of one of the world’s largest active volcanoes at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. If you’ve seen the Climate Now video How We Know It’s Happening, you know that Mauna Loa is the site of the data collection point for the Keeling Curve.
The equipment there measures the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. And it’s particularly well suited to capture a representative sample of CO2 concentrations given the elevation and given the isolation of that sensor, of those sensors. And unfortunately, due to this eruption, the equipment doesn’t have power, so we’re not actually getting those daily measurements anymore.
[00:05:23] Dina Cappiello: I think my first thought is like, isn’t it a little bit ironic, right? Like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s ash that reduces heat coming from the sun. There’s a whole circular kind of irony story there. I mean, listen, anytime when we lose data, we lose, right?
Because that data tells us the picture and what we’re combating. I think that yes, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is a really good data point. And obviously the system’s already loaded, right? We’ve put emissions in there, they’re gonna increase that concentration even if we shut off all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, right? So you are expecting to see this upward trend.
But nowadays, and this goes to Climate Trace, which I know you wanna talk about later, but like there are so many other ways that we are getting information on emissions that we didn’t have before that are completing the picture. Who’s causing it, where the biggest emitters, using satellite imagery, using artificial intelligence to go through reams of data that we couldn’t even comprehend.
[00:06:34] James Lawler: So with Climate Trace, you can go to the website, which is climatetrace.org. You can navigate an emissions map and you can download reams of data. Apparently, the data is compiled from over 300 satellites, 110,000 sensors, and profiles about 80,000 different facilities, and aggregates all of that data and presents it in this interactive, sort of cleaned up way.
It’s a collaboration between Al Gore, Blue Sky Analytics and quite a few other organizations, including RMI, that have worked together to sort of bring this picture to life.
[00:07:08] Dina Cappiello: Yeah, I don’t know if you had a chance to see the shots, but they’re actually like colors and they’re satellite imagery that is tracing CO2 emissions. And so you can almost take a snapshot of the globe. They’re not doing it globally, but they’re doing it in pieces. And actually seeing this come off of a facility like a wellhead, if it’s production, or a refinery, which I covered refineries a ton in Texas. And if you know things about refineries, it’s their closed systems and all the emissions are just little hairpin leaks.
And so we can actually see what’s coming off these individual facilities and again, say ‘Hey, you’re not doing the job that you pledged, corporation, or you’re not doing the job you pledged, country level, because these emission sources haven’t gotten down.’ And you can download the data as well.
[00:08:03] James Lawler: So Dina, you know, one other topic that’s been in the news this week is that the US government’s going to pay about 75 million dollars to move some Native American tribes that are threatened by climate change. So there’s apparently three tribes that were identified by the Department of the Interior that will be granted 25 million dollars each to move away from rising sea water.
And migration in general from climate-related displacement is becoming more prevalent around the world. You’ve attended multiple COPs over the years and I’m wondering to what degree the discussion about climate displacement has developed over time, and kind of where is that today?
[00:08:46] Dina Cappiello: Yeah, that’s a great question. It is part of the discussion. I think obviously this case, and my first thought when I saw this news story was: this has been happening for so long, and now that it happens on US soil, and in America there’s a lot of journalists covering it, it becomes really big news.
But, you know, I myself, as a journalist visited the San Blas Islands in Panama, another indigenous community that is gonna have to move to the mainland after being really island residents for their whole civilization, because of rising sea level. It really is framed, James, under the broader issue of equity, and also the fact that there are poor minority indigenous communities around the globe that are experiencing the effects of climate change, and they did little to contribute to the problem in terms of the emission standpoint.
So as we think about the huge news out of COP which was the formation of the first ever loss and damages fund, which is very short on details in terms of how it’s going to work, et cetera, I think the big question is: will this type of displacement and the cost of moving people to new safer areas be part of that loss and damage equation.
So I think that’s where it plays in, is who pays to move these people. And in this case, you know, I think we have to have a hard discussion about that, because that 75 million is really coming from the US taxpayer, and the emissions are coming from industries globally that are doing the bulk of polluting, including the fossil fuel industry, which as we know because of the record gas prices recently has made record profits. And so I think it really comes down to who pays.
[00:10:47] Dina Cappiello: Another headline that came out this week, and it’s related to climate change actually, and we’ll explain why in a second, is that countries have begun discussing a global plastics treaty to cut plastic pollution, some hope entirely, by 2040. As, as you probably know, plastic pollution in waterways globally and the oceans is a major problem, but it’s related to climate change, which is super interesting. And I just read something about this recently, because many plastics come from fossil fuels and natural gas being refined.
And so although we may be making huge strides in electrification of automobiles, we will always have refining for plastics. So there is a direct connection between fossil fuel use emissions that contributed to climate change and the plastic issue that is highly visible in the oceans.
[00:11:39] James Lawler: Indeed. So a lot to cover this week, and really every week in this space, which is why we will be doing this week over week. Dina, thanks again for joining us for the news segment this week.
[00:11:51] Dina Cappiello: Anytime. It was a lot of fun. I love talking about news. So really appreciate joining you today.
[00:11:58] James Lawler: Today in our interview segment, we’re returning to the topic of the electric grid. In a recent podcast, we discussed how the shift to renewable energy will require a dramatic increase in grid-scale battery storage to ensure reliable power when the long-range forecast is for cloudy and calm weather.
Another way to build resiliency into the electric grid, which in the United States is made up of more than 7,300 power plants and nearly 160,000 miles of high voltage power lines is through what are known as microgrids. Joining us today is Cecilia Klauber, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she works on the security and resilience of critical infrastructure for power systems.
Cecilia is the perfect person to run us through a number of questions about microgrids, such as what exactly are they and what are they used for? How do they interact with the country’s main electric grids? And how can microgrids help build climate resiliency into our power system? And how big a role will microgrids play in meeting future energy demands?
We’ll start the conversation with a little microgrids 101 with Cecilia before we start talking about use cases. We’ll also discuss the near and longer term future of microgrids and even why utilities might get on board with the idea.
All right. Well, Cecilia, it’s great to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for making time to join us today.
[00:13:15] Cecilia Klauber: Thank you for having me.
[00:13:16] James Lawler: Okay, so basic question first, what is a microgrid? Please tell us.
[00:13:22] Cecilia Klauber: What is a microgrid is a great question and I think you could ask different people and get slightly different responses, but to me, a microgrid is a local grid, something that has local generation and sufficient control capabilities to support local load. Additionally, it’s important for there to be the capability to disconnect from the traditional power grid and operate on your own in what’s called islanded operations.
[00:13:47] James Lawler: Could you give us a sense or characterize the prevalence of microgrids today? You know, I think people maybe have heard the term microgrid bandied about, but it’s maybe hard to get a sense of how widespread are these, and let’s start there actually, and then a couple follow ups to that.
[00:14:03] Cecilia Klauber: Sure. So I think that as it stands now, there are, you know, only so many microgrids connected to the bulk power system. A lot of them may be research oriented, so I think of like the Bronzeville microgrid in the state of Illinois. So it’s a collaboration between the local utility and the university.
So it’s used for research as much as it is for things like resilience. There’s also examples in the San Diego Gas and Electric footprint. They have a microgrid that supports this town that is connected by one transmission line, and because of wildfires in that area, if there are high winds, they may need to open up that transmission line, leaving this town without power.
But looking to the future, the Department of Energy and other organizations do foresee this future where microgrids will be a lot more prevalent.
[00:14:54] James Lawler: And what are the advantageous features of a microgrid? Why is it something that we care about? Why is it something that DOE and perhaps LLNL believes will be more widespread than it is today?
[00:15:07] Cecilia Klauber: Sure. I think that’s a great question. Why are we interested in microgrids? There are a lot of goals related to renewable energy integration, we’re seeing a lot more renewables being deployed on the grid, and microgrids are a great way to kind of manage them. So you have all of these distributed devices across the grid, how can we better use different architectures so that we can effectively use those resources?
Like you could have solar panels in a neighborhood, but if they’re not working towards some goal, such as cost saving or peak shaving, they’re only as good as the controls that kind of manage them. And so as we move toward this future with a lot more renewable energy resources, I see microgrids as a building block that helps us utilize them really well.
I think reliability is a really big reason why people are interested in microgrids. And so as we think about things like climate, we have increasing floods, we have increasing wildfires, and so when those happen, that can affect the electric grid. But if you have a local microgrid that’s able to disconnect, that doesn’t have to rely on these centralized generators, on these transmission lines, on these distribution lines, that they’re able to support their local loads, that gives resilience to those communities.
[00:16:28] James Lawler: Hmm. And so when it comes to the optimal scale of a microgrid now and in the future, are we talking about local energy production and distribution that covers a block of houses in a town? Are we talking about a 10,000-home town? Are we talking about cities? What are the scales of microgrids that we might be looking at, and why?
[00:16:53] Cecilia Klauber: I think in terms of scale, the answer is yes to all of the above. Every use case for a microgrid is gonna be different. My goals for my community might be different than your goals for your community, and so size can play a role in that. I do think that there is economies of scale and so larger, there sometimes is some benefits.
But I also think that as microgrids become more common, as the control systems for them, as the components of them become more common, we’ll still be able to benefit from the scale-up. Currently, we see microgrids that support a facility like the Santa Rita County Jail. We see them support towns like the one in San Diego Gas and Electric footprints that I mentioned, and you can see things in between.
I think in the future we may also see dynamic boundary microgrids. We are working on some projects related to that at Lawrence Livermore.
[00:17:47] James Lawler: What is a dynamic boundary microgrid?
[00:17:50] Cecilia Klauber: So the idea behind the dynamic boundary microgrid is that the boundaries of the load and generation that is included in my microgrid can change. So maybe right now I am just supporting this neighborhood or this feeder, but there’s a neighboring microgrid and we can communicate with each other and change how the switches between us are opened or closed so that I can support some of their microgrid from time to time or support additional parts of the bulk power system from time to time. And so that flexibility also adds to the resilience of microgrids. There’s technical challenges behind that. There’s economic challenges and regulatory challenges behind that.
[00:18:33] James Lawler: You mentioned the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California being supported by a microgrid. In what ways is that microgrid different from just panels on the roof or a bunch of panels in a field next to the jail. At what point does a solar installation go from putting solar panels up to being a microgrid?
[00:18:53] Cecilia Klauber: So I think one distinction between just distributed energy resources connected to the grid and something that would be considered a microgrid is the ability to control it and the ability to disconnect from the bulk power systems.
So in general, solar panels are intended to be what we call grid following. So they on their own don’t have the ability to start up their local system. They don’t have the ability to manage and control the local voltage and frequency of the grid. And so you would need something like a traditional generator, a battery system with grid forming capabilities so that you could kind of stand alone in that islanded form.
[00:19:36] James Lawler: So Cecilia, where will sort of the biggest need emerge or needs emerge for microgrids over the coming decades? Why is this something that we think is going to be especially important, and at what scale do you think it will reach as a technology that’s deployed?
[00:19:53] Cecilia Klauber: So in terms of applications and the resilience impacts, I think that it would be great for us to have microgrids be part of the norm, for them to be so prevalent that utilities understand how to work with owners of microgrids, or they have their own microgrids, and that customers are also very used to this concept of my neighborhood could disconnect from the bulk power grid and be okay, in fact, better than, okay. Like if there is a power safety power shutoff in California, or if there’s floods in the south, hurricanes in the east, that we’re confident in the reliability and the resilience of our grid because we know that we have these distributed resources local that can support us.
[00:20:43] James Lawler: I wonder if you could talk about the future of distributed energy and what the likely mix will be of distributed energy resources if we look forward, let’s say five and then 10 years. Could you paint a picture of what that set of resources is likely to be over those two timeframes?
[00:21:05] Cecilia Klauber: Sure. I think that in the next five years, we’ll continue to see solar grow a lot. We’re seeing also a large increase in battery deployment, and batteries are really vital for us to make the most out of solar because solar as an intermittent resource is not always available. And so if we can store up some of that which we’re getting from the solar to use during other times, that’s really important. So I think as battery technology continues to improve and get cheaper, that will help us to continue to grow the amount of solar that we’re seeing.
[00:21:41] James Lawler: I believe that like over the last two years, the capacity additions for battery storage in 2021 were like 10 times what they were in 2020. Huge year over year increase. So then looking forward, like over 10 years, would you say that that picture changes at all? Or what would you forecast?
[00:22:00] Cecilia Klauber: I would guess that in the next 10 years, as long as the prices continue to stay or continue to drop, we would still see that same increase. I think there’s still so much potential for these resources. In certain places, you may start to see saturation, like, I know Texas has huge amounts of wind, and you can only go so far with that before you have no more, or less ability to do that. But hopefully we would see it in other places, and we would see these resources and their diversity, like across the country, across the world even, and not just in those areas that we’re finding are the best spots for them.
[00:22:40] James Lawler: And what makes you so confident about that? Like why do you think there’s still so much opportunity for additional solar and wind? Why is that an obvious thing?
[00:22:50] Cecilia Klauber: I think that there’s a lot of interest in it. I think that we’ve seen, like with Winter Storm Uri, or with other natural hazards, that there are weaknesses in our grid. And I think that diversity of resources is a really big part of solving some of those issues. And I think it brings it to the national attention and people see the opportunities there are for these distributed resources to provide resilience. And so less of this reliance on centralized devices is a big part of that.
[00:23:22] James Lawler: So clearly there’s an argument from the consumer of electricity that microgrids are a good thing and are valuable. What are the arguments from the standpoint of the utility? Why would a utility invest in building additional microgrid infrastructure?
[00:23:39] Cecilia Klauber: I think that there is a business case for utilities to pursue microgrids. Also, there could be some hesitancy because if other people are providing energy on the system, then that’s fewer electrons that they’re getting paid for. So it’s a two-sided coin. But I do wanna add that losses on the system is a big deal. So whenever we’re transmitting energy from a centralized coal, nuclear, or even renewable source, and it needs to travel through the transmission system and travel through the distribution system to get to your house, there are losses on the lines.
If we can provide that energy more locally, then that’s fewer losses on the lines. So that is a cost saving possibility for the utility if they’re pursuing utility-owned, utility-operated microgrids.
[00:24:29] James Lawler: Now, are those losses significant? What kind of percentage of loss are we talking about with large transmission?
[00:24:35] Cecilia Klauber: At the bulk level, I wanna say it’s around like 5% or less, but in distribution systems it can be higher.
[00:24:42] James Lawler: Is there also an argument for the utility to pursue microgrids due to costs that they would bear in the event of outages? Would that not be a significant argument, like as backup effectively?
[00:24:53] Cecilia Klauber: Yes, definitely. Utilities have for a long time been interested in reliability. So this idea that when you flip a light switch at your house that the lights turn on, and increasingly resilience is the next layer on top of that. And so as we see increasing natural hazards, if we consider the possibility of things like cyber attacks and other disturbances on the grid, they need to provide energy to their customers.
And so reliability and resilience are two things that support that objective. And there are some great examples of utilities that are interested in microgrids. I mentioned San Diego Gas and Electric has been interested in microgrids mainly to support resilience during power safety power shutoffs. That’s one of their big concerns in their footprint.
[00:25:41] James Lawler: I see. Okay. So let’s say that I’m a leader in a community that is interested in the argument of climate resilience and I wanna explore putting a micro grid in place. By what mechanism might I do? Is it through my utility, would I need to go to a private investor? How would I accomplish that goal?
[00:26:00] Cecilia Klauber: So to actually go about setting up a micro grid, there are a couple different factors that need to be considered. And in terms of funding it, from time to time there are funding opportunities through the government. You could go to venture capitalists and things like that as well to support, and then in terms of working with your utility, I do know of some utilities that have forms that need to be filled out and there need to be relationships in place. And if you’re going to be adding infrastructure, how is it going to — even if the plan is for it to island from time to time, it is still going to be connected to the bulk power grid.
So being clear about what the expectations are and making sure that you’re in line with the standards related to distributed energy resources and those kinds of things to make sure that you’re within spec and that the utility is in tune with what the goals and plans are.
[00:26:56] James Lawler: We’ve been speaking with Cecilia Klauber with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory about the value of microgrids to not only improve the resiliency of our power systems, but to help manage the shift to renewables. Currently, there are more than 450 microgrids in the United States, which collectively generate about 3.1 gigawatts of electricity.
To put that into perspective, we use about 500 gigawatts of electrical power at any given moment. So microgrids are still a very small piece of the pie for generating electricity. That’s all for this episode of the podcast. For more episodes, videos, or to sign up for our newsletter, visit climatenow.com. If you enjoy this episode, please leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts, share it with a friend, and tell us what you think at email@example.com.
We hope you can join us for our next conversation.
Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.