A recently completed distributed energy project at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California, ties together power from fuel cells, solar panels, wind turbines, and diesel generators—all located at the jail—to form a micro grid that can operate independently of large, centralized power plants. The system keeps the power on when storms take down the grid, which is essential for safety at the maximum security facility, and it’s saving the jail about $100,000 a year.
Micro grids are a step beyond either emergency backup systems or stand-alone solar-panel arrays. They use special software and power electronics to integrate multiple sources of power and energy storage to provide electricity around the clock, overcoming the challenge of intermittency or regulations limit the use of diesel generators.
The first customers for micro grids are businesses and organizations that can’t afford even short power outages—such as jails, hospitals, data centres, and military bases—or remote areas that don’t have access to the grid. As the cost of renewable energy and large-scale batteries decreases, and as advanced controls and power electronics make them more efficient, micro grids could soon be employed in more places.
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