The case for microgrids

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Good afternoon,

There were some anxious moments yesterday at A.I. DuPont High School when a power outage took place before Joe Biden introduced vice-presidential running-mate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

The grid around Greenville is fragile these days after an early Friday storm brought high winds and even a tornado to a tree-laden area prone to outages.

The back-up generator kicked on and after a delay, the nationally televised event got the green light.

A company back in Harris’ home state of California is making a bid to reduce the impact of outages in commercial hubs like Greenville as well as key facilities like hospitals and public safety centers.

Silicon Valley-based Bloom Energy, which has its largest manufacturing site in Newark, sees microgrids as a way to deal with unpredictable weather and natural disasters.

Wall Street has taken notice with shares of Bloom springing back from about $3 to $14 a share despite long-running losses.

It also marks a change from the utility-style installations of Bloom fuel cells that were part of the deal that brought the company to Delaware during the depths of the previous recession.

Although fuel cell production has steadily increased in Newark, only a fraction of the 900 or so projected jobs materialized.

Meanwhile, Delmarva Power customers pick up the tab for the higher costs of fuel cell power at a time when wholesale rates remain low. The Bloom deal is now a perennial campaign issue.

As Bloom worked to find its place in the world, it found success in providing back-up power for data centers used by tech and financial services companies. Bloom has been able to tap into the vast venture capital resources in its Silicon Valley home area that has bankrolled companies like Apple and Adobe.

California, Connecticut, and other states added incentives that cut the cost gap with noisy diesel generators that can be unreliable and a source of pollution if not properly maintained or updated.

The microgrid expands on back-up power as shown in the graphic above. Most of the time, the system operates as part of the grid. When an outage takes place, the system can be switched to an “island” mode that keeps the lights on within the zone.

Everything from solar energy to fuel cells and even generators fueled by natural gas can be used to keep the lights on throughout the island.

Costs can be considerable. In addition to capital expenses, wholesale electric power is cheap these days and reduces the incentive to make a change.

Bloom says it has boosted the efficiency of its fuel cells. It is also worth noting that the costs of solar have dropped sharply, but come with the issue of storage, hence the growing use of back-up batteries that can also be incorporated into the microgrid.

One option studied at the University of Delaware and elsewhere would store and release power from electric fleet vehicles on the premises.

In a perfect world, the clusters of Bloom fuel cells feeding power into Delmarva’s grid could be redeployed into microgrids in key areas around the state.

When combined with continuing efforts to strengthen the grid, Delaware would become a national leader in this area.

While the ship has sailed in regard to Bloom’s utility fuel cells in Delaware, a closer look at microgrids would be well worth the effort.– Doug Rainey, chief content officer.

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