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The Name Game: Is 'Microgrid' Correct?

Dec. 3, 2015
Have you ever thought about all the nicknames, catchphrases and, in some cases, bizarre naming we lovingly apply to equipment, processes and technologies used in our industry?

Have you ever thought about all the nicknames, catchphrases and, in some cases, bizarre naming we lovingly apply to equipment, processes and technologies used in our industry? We love to use expressions rather than more technically accurate names. Heck, they are easier to remember and, in many cases, better describe how a device is applied than a more formal term ever would.

Take one of the latest technologies to be sweeping the industry: the microgrid. When starting work on this supplement, I contacted a lot of industry experts and many friends to get a fresh perspective on this technology.

One colleague indicated he does not like the term “microgrid” because it is inaccurate. He said the term “autonomous network,” as used in Europe, is more correct. Autonomous network suggests a network operating independently from other networks; therefore, it is his wish that everyone stop using the nonsensical microgrid term. I tend to think of autonomous networks more in relation to computer systems than power grids. For the IT department, it is a system that controls a group of networks, which is not a microgrid.

Well, as luck would have it, the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) General Meeting was about to take place in Denver, Colorado, U.S., and I was scheduled to present a paper. The conference also gave me an opportunity to attend several sessions on microgrid technology.

Opportunity at Hand

Not only would I get to hear about the state of this technology and its deployment on the grid at the conference, I would also get a chance to poll friends, colleagues and subjectmatter experts on nomenclature (that is, autonomous network). After all, I have had some of my most profitable learning experiences sitting around a PES breakfast table or during coffee breaks, and this topic promised to be fun.

As a past chair of the PES T&D committee, I have a wide base of friends and colleagues who love spirited discussions as much as I do, and they had some strong opinions on zany names. Interestingly, the autonomous network term usually brought a lot of blank looks from around the table. Generally, someone would ask, “Do you mean microgrids?” Then the discussions would get interesting.

Many of these individuals were working on applications still in development while others were installing them on the grid, but pretty much everyone favored the microgrid term. Of course, a few people present had to add terms such as “mega grid,” “mille grid,” “nano grid” and “centralized grid,” which really hyped up the discussions.

All in all, the query convinced me, as much as the term autonomous network might sound impressive, the industry has accepted microgrid as the name of choice. The term microgrid gets right to the point. It is a small grid, micro in nature compared to the larger centralized grid. It mimics the utility grid, so it is a grid. Combining the two says it all: microgrid.

The Past Is Critical

During the terminology conversations, many friends kept telling me how this new technology was the key to the future of the grid. The idea this technology is new hit a humorous note for me and gave me another idea. I love history and, many of us tend to forget, as an industry, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. So I started asking friends, “When and where was the first microgrid?”

This brought about all manner of interesting answers, but none were correct until I ran into my longtime friend Reigh Walling. He answered the question without a bit of hesitation, saying it was in 1882 when Thomas Edison opened his Pearl Street station. I expected him to know because he had spent his career as a GE engineer before starting his own company. Remarkably, back in the day, Edison’s Pearl Street station met all of today’s criteria for a microgrid. It was small with a localized generation and distribution network. It even included batteries for energy storage. It was direct current, and direct current microgrids are a hot topic today. It supplied heat from steam generation to buildings around its facilities; we call this combined heat and power. Edison’s design served as a model for the early power utilities that sprang up to provide electricity to consumers.

The idea of microgrids dating back to the beginnings of the industry got attention, but admittedly, calling those systems microgrids is a bit of a stretch. Edison and his cronies never had to deal with the likes of Superstorm Sandy and the impact weather has on society when the lights are off for millions of people for weeks, but their straightforward approach to electrification planted the seeds of the solution for us.

The size and complexity of the mega grid are the critical issues. The simplicity of the microgrid’s modular construction is the solution. It provides utilities a way to enhance the security, improve the reliability, reduce the outages and increase the environmental friendliness of the grid without a total redesign.

While the new microgrid technology really has been decades in the making, it definitely has made the move from niche to mainstream. As a result, the resiliency of the centralized grid is being improved, but we must take advantage of it.

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