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Innovating Cleaner Communities with Microgrid Technology
September 28 '10 | By Larry Sollecito, Vice President, Smart Grid for GE’s Digital Energy

Microgrid technology can help ensure remote communities, tucked away in mountains or the military bases that, for security reasons, need to operate independently of the surrounding electric grid are provided with reliable, efficient energy.

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Like me, when most of you reading this post turn on a light, you probably take for granted how the electricity got to your home. Outside of work, the only time I really think about the electricity in my home is when the lights don’t go on as expected. That’s because, living in a city, I know that the power plant surrounding my town will supply my house with a (relatively) constant source of power so I never miss a Monday night football game or Saturday morning pancake. But, what about the remote communities, tucked away in mountains or the military bases that, for security reasons, need to operate independently of the surrounding electric grid – how are they assured reliable, efficient energy?

Unlike populous cities with multiple power stations nearby, these communities often are “off the grid” and are usually supplied by utilities shipping in energy. For the past two years I have been working on a project in such a Canadian community. The clean energy project provides cleaner, more efficient energy leveraging a technological solution that has been developed by GE and its partners as a result of the global smart grid vision.

In early September, we officially commissioned an operational microgrid project in Bella Coola, British Columbia, that will help the community reduce their annual diesel consumption by 200,000 liters – lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 600 tons annually – and provide storage for the communities hydropower, so the electricity they generate can be used when needed most.

Due to its remote location, Bella Coola, about 250 miles north of Vancouver, is not connected to the provincial electricity grid. The community, until now, has been powered by greenhouse gas-emitting diesel generators and by a hydropower facility which, while generating clean electricity, had no way of storing it. The microgrid solution offers the Bella Coola community of about 2,000 residents new technologies with which to store energy from their hydropower facility, reducing the dependence on diesel generators and ensuring that the clean power they are generating from the run-of-river facility does not go to waste.

Central to the project is the GEmicrogrid controller that automatically responds to changes in supply and demand – ensuring energy is managed efficiently. The result: a cleaner, more efficient power generation system. Although Bella Coola now has access to cleaner, more reliable energy, there are more than 100 communities like Bella Coola in Canada and hundreds more around the world that are “off the grid.” When considering that, by some estimates, as much as 44 percent of global population and 20 percent of the United States live in rural, sometimes remote areas, there is clearly huge potential for microgrids.

In addition to remote communities, microgrid systems are also attractive to military bases, college campuses, industrial campuses, ports, and islands – such as Hawaii – that often rely on their own power sources and need more efficient solutions, but still bear the same energy mandates, costs and security criteria of traditional grids.
With the microgrid system, these communities will be able to integrate more renewable energy into their electricity mix, like wind and solar, further reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
While many consumers and industry leaders may think that the smart grid solutions proposed to address these challenges require new innovations and solutions, the success that Bella Coola has found with this microgrid project is proof positive that our investments in new technology give a new purpose to a broader population not just making the big city “smarter.

To read more about the Bella Coola announcement, be sure to check out the GE Reports story or Greenbang’s article on the announcement. And, don’t forget – We want to hear from you! Do you know if your town is on the or off the grid? How does your community handle power generation?

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Oskar Casanova

MicroGrid controllers will play definitely a key role enabling "bigger" SmartGrid solutions.

John

So what does the microgrid control system do that the digital control systems installed three decades ago did not do? The fuel cell may be new technology; but the electrolyzer and the control system are not new. I have seen control systems for non-grid (island) power systems that that matched the electrical supply with the demand and operated power plants to produce the required amount of power. These used 1950 technology.

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