Microgrid Thinking

In the world of energy transmission and utility, a “microgrid” is an electrical grid that operates like a typical grid, but smaller and more modular.

When we talk about electrical grids, we’re talking about all the energy generation elements (power plants, solar arrays, etc), the cables and related infrastructure that gets energy from where it’s produced to where it’s ultimately consumed, and the stuff in between that moderates the strength of energy transmission in various ways (amplifying it so it can travel farther and stepping it down it so it can be used by folks without it blowing up their appliances).

That’s a super-simplified conception of a typical energy grid, but the basics are there.

And a microgrid is essentially the same thing, but rather than encompassing a whole city or region, it maybe encompasses a hospital or university campus, an apartment building or a manufacturing facility.

What makes a microgrid special and useful is that it has all the components of a grid (a means of generating energy, a way to distribute that energy, and the tools to moderate said energy for use by those who need it) but it can operate in isolation or plug into the larger grid if necessary or desired.

Some microgrids are not plug-in-able to larger grids (these are called “isolated microgrids”), and this is usually either because they’re located in far-flung places without affordable access to regional grids, or because the energy production and/or use is specialized in some way.

Whatever the reason, though, these microgrids are intentionally kept separate, and there’s no conversion infrastructure that allows them to become part of a larger grid if they decide they want to do so.

Many microgrids, though, are built to be “islandable,” which means most of the time they’ll be part of a larger grid, but they can separate from it when desired or required, essentially turning off their connection to the big grid and using their own internal setup, instead.

What’s interesting about this sort of setup, when you look at it from the macro-perspective, is that a microgrid isn’t really different from an individual, normal user of a grid’s services: the university or hospital or whatever else is a utility customer like all the other utility customers, it’s just that if you zoom-in and take a closer look, they have more flexibility and resiliency, because rather than being a mere node in a network, they have the capacity to morph into a network unto themselves: a network-within-a-network.

In some cases these microgrids can even upgrade a primary grid’s capabilities rather than simply operating as one more node amongst nodes.

A microgrid might, for instance, have a wind turbine or some solar panels that plug into a large battery, which allows them to store intermittent energy for later use.

If they don’t use all that energy, or if the main grid is running low, they can sometimes pump that stored energy into the main grid, contributing to it as a producer instead of just pulling energy from it, as a consumer.

This back-and-forth-ability isn’t common yet and requires a fair bit of investment to make possible, but it’s part of why so many countries are keen to upgrade their electrical grids at the moment. A lot of our existing infrastructure is already inefficient and aging, and adding this additional capability when upgrades are made dramatically improves resiliency, while also allowing those behind these microgrids to become small-scale energy entrepreneurs who are incentivized to produce more energy for other grid-denizens because they can maybe sell it for profit.

Zooming in even further, “nanogrids” are to microgrids what microgrids are to grids.

So if you look at individual nodes—users of energy—within a university campus, for instance, you might see a building that has its own rooftop solar panels and battery backup, and that building might be capable of operating in isolation if the campus’ power goes out. It might also (if the infrastructure allows for it) be capable of injecting power back to that larger microgrid if warranted.

Nanogrids can also be as small as a single device: a streetlight with a solar panel up top and a battery in its base can continue functioning even when electricity around the rest of the city (and maybe across other, neighboring streetlights) has gone out.

And given the proper infrastructure, this single streetlight might be able to share some of its generated and stored energy with those neighboring streetlight nanogrids via the local microgrid (that microgrid might then also be able to aggregate enough extra energy from the numerous nanogrids it contains to share with the larger, regional grid).

I personally love the concept of micro- and nano-grids in part because I’m a huge geek for energy infrastructure, but also because I think it’s a lovely example of how aspects of our tools and systems might be reimagined to provide additional functionality and resiliency.

I’m interested in, but also wary of, for instance, the many new AI technologies that have come of age and been released to the public this year.

But I would be far less concerned and a lot more intrigued (and compelled to use them for more use-cases) if I could wield them in this sort of Matryoshka doll manner, with the core of the software under my complete control, operating on my personal nanogrid (one of my devices, maybe), my information not being automatically sent to anyone else without my permission.

I would still be capable of tapping into a larger collection of online resources via this tool, reaching out beyond my AI nanogrid into an AI microgrid, and could also dive into the larger, unobstructed internet when desired (the full-scale AI grid).

But the default would be controlling this tool independently on hardware I control, and then having each level of engagement plug-in-able to, but not inseparable from that larger cloud of tools and software and people and businesses.

This concept can also serve as a useful metaphor for how we interface with the world as human beings.

Getting things right and stable and sustainable at a single-person level can help make our functionality at other scales (interpersonal, societal, global) more healthy and resilient and useful, whatever we might individually and collectively face in the future, and whatever our personal needs and desires might be.

It also provides a useful heuristic for thinking about systems and the relationships between things, as turning more nodes into grids (elements that are individually capable, but even more valuable when modularly plugged into larger ecosystems) and investing in social structures that empower individuals to contribute more capably to the larger mesh would seem to serve the macro-scale needs of humanity as a holistic unit while also serving each of us, personally.

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