Microgrid Power: The Evolving Energy Grid in the US

On August 14, 2003, a huge blackout took hold of the Northeastern United States. Rural areas, suburban towns, and entire dense metropolitan areas were thrown into darkness, eventually reaching more than 50 million people. Once the lights came back on, power operators discovered that the massive event had been caused by a single generator plant in Ohio.

How did that happen? First, you need to understand how the U.S. power grid is currently set up. It consists of three individual and separate electrical grids: Western, Eastern, and the independent ERCOT grid in Texas, of varying size and age, each connected by one transmission line to one large grid of customers. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that if only nine of the country’s 55,000 substations are knocked out of commission, that is enough to cause a widespread power outage.

Microgrids provide a solution. They are an oft-talked about option and are beginning to gain traction in some areas. Essentially, microgrids are a sub-grid system, where grids are smaller, independent, and located closer to their power generating structures. In a truly ideal application, each grid would be one customer, with their own power generation on-site.

In order for microgrids to operate properly, they need essential power electronics. Here at PCTI, power electronics are our expertise. Whether it is through battery chargers, frequency converters, or DC power supplies, we understand what is needed in order for the future of utilities, such as microgrids, to run. We have also been monitoring new innovative ideas. For example, UPower Technologies, of Boston, MA, has come up with a possible alternative: small, modular nuclear reactors. Generating between one and two megawatts of power apiece, these mini-reactors would use a radiant (as in heat radiating) cooling system that would require little maintenance and would be a self-contained system. Since they are low-output, there’s no risk of meltdown; any mismanaged reaction would self-cool into a shutdown state. Once the regulatory and licensing issues are dealt with, these mini reactors could become an enabler for a microgrid approach.

Another potential solution has been proposed by Gildemeister, in the form of a battery product called the CellCube. Highly efficient, this battery system can hold hundreds of kilowatts, the serious amount of power needed to run a microgrid. Working in conjunction with a solar or wind-based power source, CellCubes are another feasible option for enabling microgrids. Power storage is important for microgrids, and batteries are generally the energy storage device. PCTI is on the forefront of battery charging and discharging technologies, working with batteries that have all types of chemistries, including lithium ion, at power ratings up to 2MW for a discrete battery charging and discharging system.

We can certainly see how microgrids are going to become more and more important to the future of accessible electricity in the United States. And with every microgrid comes the need for power electronics, which is where we step in. Our products help microgrids, and well as other electric and industrial applications, operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible. We are here to make sure our customers always have the power they need.

About PCTI

PCTI designs and manufactures leading edge power electronic equipment in the highest power ranges. PCTI’s engineering staff has in-depth knowledge in the key areas of power conversion such as power  semiconductor analysis and application, thermal exchange, magnetic design, packaging, DSP (digital signal processor) control for inverters, frequency converters, DC power supplies, battery chargers and dischargers. PCTI is a certified DBE woman-owned business. Contact us for more information on our products, applications assistance, or pricing.