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Microgrids: The future of energy

Dan Boyce
Inside Energy
An increasing number of blackouts on the nation's electric grid has prompted the military to create "microgrids" on some of its various posts, bases and installations as a hedge against losing power. An array of solar panels provide emergency power to critical buildings at Fort Carson Army Base in the event of a blackout on the larger electric grid. on May 26, 2015. (Dan Boyce/Rocky Mountain PBS/Inside Energy)
Rocky Mountain PBS Inside Energy | Rocky Mountain PBS Inside Energy

The aging United States electricity grid is facing an increasing number of threats, ranging from severe weather events to solar flares to cyber terrorism.

Inside Energy research has found major power outages have doubled every five years since 2000. It’s something the U.S. Military is taking seriously, helping lead the way in the development of smaller and more secure grids — known as microgrids.

Ramon Crockett is a supply specialist at Fort Carson Army Base near Colorado Springs. He describes his team as the Home Depot of the 31,000-person post. He spends much of his day trucking whatever people need around the base. But, it’s a quiet job, owing to the whispering electric engine in his delivery truck.

“Yeah, it’s nice, all the guys say I sneak up on ‘em,” Crockett laughed.

His truck is one of a small fleet of electric vehicles driving around Fort Carson, carrying refrigerated goods, weapons and even troops heading out to train. The trucks make up an important piece of the base’s microgrid project known as SPIDERS, an acronym for Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security.

“It’s all about … what can we do in the event of a catastrophic outage,” said Bill Waugaman, who leads energy security for U.S. Northern Command — the military’s homeland defense arm.

Waugaman has overseen SPIDERS projects at Fort Carson and at bases in Hawaii. Those bases are still hooked up to the same electricity grid we all use. But, if there’s a blackout on the main system, SPIDERS allows electricity to keep flowing to the bases’ most important buildings from power sources on site.

At Fort Carson, a field of solar panels and diesel generators provide power which can be used immediately or stored in the batteries of the base’s electric vehicles for later use.

Microgrids are not new

GTM Research counts 124 in the U.S. as of now, often at hospitals, universities and research facilities, as well as military bases. But, they usually rely solely on diesel generators.

During Superstorm Sandy, diesel shortages wracked the East Coast. Waugaman said generators failed in multiple hospitals from overuse at that time. The combination of renewable energy sources and batteries found at Fort Carson could provide a prescription for a more reliable microgrid. And Waugaman said military bases provide an important testing ground for such a suite of technologies.

“We play war,” Waugaman said. “So, on the military installation we … can basically attack our infrastructure from a cyber point of view.”

He said these real world tests are something hospitals or Wall Street wouldn’t be willing to do, so pilot projects like SPIDERS could eventually drive markets in the private sector.

And those markets are growing. Colorado real estate investor Craig Harrison is developing what he calls the “world’s largest planned microgrid” in Weld County. This square mile Niobrara Energy Park sits at the intersection of major electric transmission, natural gas pipelines and one of the largest fiber optic hubs in the country.

Harrison wants to pool those resources and combine them with renewables on site to lure in major technology companies like Apple or Google to build data centers there. He thinks the project could be worth $10 billion dollars one day.

GTM Research predicts the market for microgrids will grow nearly 270 percent by 2020.

The Post Independent brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news.


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