Microgrids more popular as US looks to avoid weather-related blackouts

With the repeated blackouts stemming from storms hitting the East Coast, states, the military, and the federal government are all looking at ways to keep the lights on when large storms hit the country.

From the military to main street, the United States is trying to avoid Superstorm Sandy-like blackouts by developing more backup power in the form of microgrids

Many of these mini networks produce power onsite and store it for emergencies. They operate independently of the nation's electrical grid, which distributes power from coal, natural gas or nuclear plants, so they can keep the lights on when a storm brings down the grid.

Just one year after Sandy turned out the lights on 8.5 million Americans, there's been a proliferation of generators, fuel cells, solar panels paired with batteries, and combined heat and power technologies. These varying microgrids aim to make the main grid more "resilient" — energy's 2013 buzzword.

Reliability is the issue when it comes to electricity generation and transmission during storms. As the prices of solar panels has decreased and the quality of battery storage technology increases, microgrid systems are solving this problem.

Microgrids — once used mostly by colleges and hospitals — are now expanding to other facilities as the U.S. Department of Defense, businesses and local governments work to avoid the risks posed by extreme weather, expected to intensify with climate change-related power risks.

More than 50 U.S. military bases now operate, plan or are testing microgrids, according to fourth-quarter 2013 data by Navigant Consulting, a research group that's compiled a microgrid database.

"The United States is by far the world's leader on microgrids," says Navigant's Peter Asmus, principal research analyst. He says the nation now accounts for nearly two-thirds, or 62%, of global microgrid capacity that's either planned or operational. He says the number of microgrids worldwide has increased from about 400 early last year to about 600 now, nearly half of which are in the U.S.

Asmus says Sandy, along with other recent extreme weather events, exposed the growing unreliability of the nation's aging and "Balkanized' power grid, which is subject to varying state-by-state regulations.

As with any developing technology, microgrids are still working out all of the kinks and are being deployed differently from state to state. However, because they are becoming more popular solutions to grid reliability problems, they are slowly reaching a standard for regulation and installation.

Read more at USA Today.