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Working on the micro-grid project at the Kortright Conservation Area in Ontario. (Kortright Conservation Area)
Working on the micro-grid project at the Kortright Conservation Area in Ontario. (Kortright Conservation Area)

Don’t just go off the grid: Build your own Add to ...

More communities and businesses are looking to their own micro-grids for a greener, more reliable electricity source

When we think about renewable energy, we are usually thinking of huge sources like the wind and the sun, but one of the most promising ways to use these sources is to think small – as in micro-grid-sized small.

A micro-grid is a miniaturized, local version of a centralized electricity system spanning a province or a state. Micro-grids do the same thing as the big grid, generating, distributing and regulating energy to homes, factories and businesses; but it all takes place within the confines of the micro-grid.

They offer several 21st-century advantages. By producing power locally, through wind, solar or small natural gas turbines, micro-grids help communities make their own decisions about building the system and encouraging conservation.

Their size also makes it easier for energy companies to deploy the latest, most advanced smart-grid technology − analytical tools and sensors that can measure power use more accurately, save money and tell the micro-grid when it’s necessary to draw additional large-grid power or, conversely, when the micro-grid can send its surpluses back to the big grid to earn revenues via Feed-In Tariff (FIT) programs. Smart tools are being installed across large grids too, but it’s easier to start if you’re investing in a micro- grid.

In Vaughan, Ont., GE is partnering with an energy portfolio company, PowerStream Inc., to launch a joint micro-grid demonstration project. The project, announced in April 2014, is designed to show how both consumers and utilities may be able to generate their own safe, sustainable, reliable and renewable energy.

PowerStream’s system uses GE’s Grid IQMicrogrid Control System, as well as the expertise of GE’s engineers. The system combines local wind, solar and natural gas generation with energy storage devices, including GE’s Durathon Battery technology. Improving storage of renewable energy is considered to be the Holy Grail of sustainability − the goal is to improve continuously at retaining renewables produced off-peak for later demand.

The system lets PowerStream monitor, track and forecast its micro-grid’s load, generation and storage abilities, says Juan Macias, General Manager, Grid Automation for GE Digital Energy. “By maximizing the use of distributed energy resources, PowerStream will be able to provide power in the most economical method possible.” PowerStream can use the energy its micro-grid produces for lighting, air conditioning and refrigeration at its head office, as well as for electric vehicle charging stations in its parking lot.

PowerStream’s Vaughan project is not the only micro-grid. Not far away, at the Kortright Conservation Area, the Toronto Region Conservation Authority has been putting together a “Living City Campus,” with buildings connected by tunnels that can support electricity from various sources and which can be easily reconfigured as new technologies emerge. Kortright’s micro-grid includes a LEED Platinum-certified sustainable house with its own micro generation unit, 8 kilowatts of grid-connected solar-power systems, a 10-kilowatt wind turbine, solar-powered water pumping and heating and smaller, stand-alone solar and wind generators.

The potential for using micro-grids is especially promising for remote areas and industrial sites. Projects in places such as coastal British Columbia, Aboriginal communities or the North can keep down power costs and help the environment, says Bob Oliver, Executive Director of Pollution Probe.

Micro-grids are part of an emerging “participatory electrical system,” he explains. In part, this means that communities make their own decisions about how to produce power, but it also means that the system is more nimble than a large, province-wide grid could ever be.

Unlike the big grid, which must operate more or less constantly, a micro-grid can produce enough power to meet demand, shut down temporarily or start up quickly and either draw more power from connected larger grids or supply the main grid if the micro-facility has a surplus.

“A large mine can use a micro-grid to produce enough power for the mine, with the surplus supplying power to a local community [instead of a faraway power plant],” Mr. Oliver says.

The ability to produce power locally through a micro-grid is becoming increasingly important in the United States. This is partly a response to severe weather conditions such as Hurricane Sandy, which hit the eastern U.S. hard in 2012. Connecticut, which suffered badly, has brought in an aggressive program to support financing and development of micro-grids.

They’re also good for addressing climate change. The power micro-grids produce can reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants. Ontario is now coal-free, but coal provides nearly 40 per cent of U.S. electricity, and U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the coal plants to reduce harmful air emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. 

For more innovation insights, visit www.gereports.ca

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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