What is a microgrid?

frogblog reader Andrew E pointed me to this interesting article about “microgrids” – which could save a great deal of energy without changing lifestyles. The BBC reports:

Small networks of power generators in “microgrids” could transform the electricity network in the way that the net changed distributed communication.

That is one of the conclusions of a Southampton University project scoping out the feasibility of microgrids for power generation and distribution. Microgrids are small community networks that supply electricity and heat.

They could make substantial savings, and emissions cuts with no major changes to lifestyles, researchers say. Electricity suppliers are aiming to meet the UK government’s Renewables Obligation, requiring them to generate 15% of electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

Microgrids, say the researchers, could easily integrate alternative energy production, such as wind or solar, into the electricity network. They could also make substantial savings and cuts to emissions without major changes to lifestyles, according to lead researcher, Dr Tom Markvart.

With technology coming on stream all the time, moving to sustainable energy use will certainly be doable. It will just become a question of political will and imagination…

16 Comments Posted

  1. But there is of course a question who will make money of this. I know that this kind of dark thinking is not good, but there is a theory (probably not only a theory) that when something ecological might come into a big production concerns are not willing to let this happen when their business is dangered (good example might be a car that is powered electrical).

  2. Yeah… NZ is as backward as that and more.

    When I lived in Long Island, NY, the first house we owned was built around 1950, a Levitt built tract house. It had “Storm Windows” which were replaced with weird things called “Screen Windows” in Summer. Neither has apparently, ever been seen in New Zealand. Nor is there any evidence that they could possibly catch on, as cheap Aluminium joinery that is designed to prevent 2 layers of windows, is all the rage here.

    When I examined the systems in common use here it appears almost as if they were INTENTIONALLY designed to be as inefficient as possible and as impossible to upgrade as imaginable. I have nothing but contempt for the “designers” and a vast amount of untapped rage with respect to the real-estate community which makes such a virtue out of “good indoor-outdoor flow” … apparently referring to vast expanses of impossible heat losing sliding doors and windows.


    In the attic here I see a bare 4-5 cm of insulation. In the walls there is nothing and under the floor there is nothing. Compared to the toasty warm (even with 2 meters of snow) homes I left behind I find that NZ is bizarrely behind. It may not be so far behind the British, but that is not something I would regard as an accomplishment. We should be well ahead of them… and people pay over a quarter of a million dollars for this cr@p!!!!??? New Zealanders DESERVE to suffer on that basis.

    As for Russia… triple glazing is not unusual.

    It is NOT necessary to build a hugely expensive house to make it thermally efficient. It is NOT necessary to buy the pre-built single layer double-glazed windows to get a layer of insulating air. It is NOT necessary to do this the way the cheap-jack builders and the real-estate community says to do it. It is NOT necessary for council to approve everything and provide guarantees.

    It IS necessary for MY inspector to approve everything and it IS necessary for me to buy insurance against defects. A different issue entirely from leaving it in the hands of the council.

    This hasn’t anything to do with party politics. I’ll back ANYONE who rips the councils, the builders and the real-estate community a new one and pushes them towards sanity.


  3. I distinctly remember that double glazing salemen were the butt of many jokes in British comedy programs in the 1970s. I was surprised that Manchester only began double clazing it’s pensioner flats in the late 1990s. Maybe we aren’t as backward as we are sometimes led to believe?

  4. Double glazing is increasingly popular here in the UK and I also imagine quite popular in Europe also. It is good to see that we are heading in the right direction to make the most of renewable or recycable energy. I hope that double glazing is the first of many more things to come in the future.

  5. dbuckley

    The reason that SELCHP is opposed is because it burns garbage and pollutes the local environment with lovelies like dioxin.

    Strange where it’s located too ! Certainly not in the posher parts of London. South East London !

    Let’s see if you’d like one near your place ?

  6. Most european countries require a reasonable level of insulation, double glazing, etc. to be built into new properties as part of the building code. The trouble with that in NZ is that people expect to live in a standalone house with a garden – building such a house to a high standard is pretty expensive. People are willing to trade off cold, condensation and high heating bills in favour of space and privacy. (It helps that we have a relatively warm climate – in Sweden you wouldn’t survive the winter in an average NZ house).

    For a government to demand substantially higher standards would be unpopular – they would be accused of pricing young families out of houses.

  7. I see the same effect from another perspective.

    Home automation and “smart homes”. A few years back a number of us had discussions with developers about what it would take to upgrade the standard of electrics fitted to houses in the UK. The answer was that such things are entirely customer driven, and customers are not asking for smart home stuff yet. Therefore the builders wont fit it speculativly.

    Guess the same applies with other strange things like PV roofs.

  8. Peter,

    If the developer cannot see a return in doing it, they will not, cannot, spend one dollar extra on any feature not required by legislation.

    The problem is that the “market” places no value on energy conservation. My own valuer has told me outright… if I spend say $5000 on double glazing, the valuation will likely only show an extra $2000 in value. ie I have just gotten to throw away $3000 of borrowed money to benefit someone else.

    I’m a sucker, but there is a limit to how much dosh even I can loose.

  9. Solar Panels would be an ideal system for this but their current cost is prohibitive. Something like $20,000 worth of solar panels would be required to fully power a home (assuming decent weather… what do you do in winter??).

    As a once off this could be justified by some people if it wasn’t going to be obsolete in a few years time. Current efficiency is around 7-13% but this is expected to be 30%+ in another 5 years.

    This means that even if panels stay just as expensive as they are now you will only need to buy a third of the amout to power you house meaning $7000.

    Few more years…

  10. And I want to add that the basic idea is certainly not new. Visit any Russian city like Ekaterinburg and you will just this kind of thing in action on a wide scale.

    Typically the city has local coal fired or nuclear power stations near the city limits that in the wintertime circulate all their waste heat in large insulated pipes {typically > 1m diamater) around the entire city. Each apartment block has it’s own heat exchanger that taps off a portion of this for heating. Each apartment will have a small hydronic radiator in each major room that runs non-stop all winter. Typically the room will be at 28-32degC!! Quite a jump from the -10–30C outside!! Inside I only ever wore a T-shirt (or less).

    Effectively the cost of this is zero and the tenants are not even charged for it.

  11. One of the activities of my business is precisely in this area. Unfortunately the market is completely “wired wrong” to respond to this kind of initiative. The biggest problem is that the people who are in a position to make decisions in favour of investing in this kind of technology, developers and investors, are not the same people who benefit, ie the occupiers.

    Until this issue is resolved, the so called “market” will stall any kind of progress.

  12. Microgrids sounds like just another term for Distributed Generation.

    The “problem” with DG is that it doesnt benefit the established parties in energy supply. Thus there is a history of established parties making life difficult for small scale suppliers.

    This is yet another bannana waiting for the Greens to slip on. As an example, in London is SELCHP, see http://www.selchp.com which converts wate to electricity, and is supposed to also heat nearby blocks of flats, but for reasons that escape me it hasn’t, and fossil fuels heat the nearby flats. However, this plant is opposed by the UK Greens…

  13. CHP isn’t new – it’s really a reinvention of something that existed when (large) power stations were built in cities. New York has always had CHP through steam pipes (that’s what makes the drains steam in the movies). London used to have a steam fed heating system from Battersea power station to the surrounding flats.

    The thing with CHP is that it works best with apartments (or industrial users) – trying to network steam around around suburban Auckland would be very lossy. It would be a bright move to have heat intensive industrial processes (like timber mills) around Huntly power station, rather than using cooling water to warm the Waikato – I don’t know if this has ever been suggested?

    But in NZ, we really haven’t moved off the starting grid in energy efficiency – most houses have very little insulation and are heated primarily with electricity.

  14. Just a note, this is basically the way we’ve been moving for a while. There is a company in Wellington (damnit, can’t find the link) that has been producing personal wind generators for a few years now that actually feed back into the grid when your usage is low. I was heartened to see a house being renovated in Epsom yesterday with solar panels covering the roof as well. Pity they’re still so freaking expensive.

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