Microgrids During the Outbreak of COVID-19
By Sheetal Chandak and Pravat Kumar Rout
"Everything works and will continue to work as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid": Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal).
It is a well-known saying that disasters bring their own challenges and changes. Since December 2019, the outbreak of corona virus (COVID-19) has become a health menace. Affecting 213 countries and territories around the world, COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation in March 2020. Several countries like China, India, France, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Austria, New Zealand, Poland, UK, the Czech Republic, etc have imposed strict restrictive lockdown even at the cost of slowing down the economy. During this pandemic, more than a third of the world population is under mass quarantine. The outbreak has not only challenged human-beings but also strained many organizations like hospitals, data centres, communication, food supply system, etc. One of the most strained yet unnoticed sectors is the power industry, dynamically changing in concept and application.
Microgrids have brought a significant change and support to the USA's power sector during the COVID-19 crisis. Utilities integrated with community microgrids have offered resilience to the shifting power demand since most of the people are required to work from home. An example of significant microgrid performance comes from Blue Lake Rancheria, California for saving lives. About three years ago, a microgrid powered by solar, battery energy storage and diesel back-up generator was installed to serve a hotel and casino. During the outbreak, the microgrid supported hotel was converted as a base to deliver meals to the elderly. However, the major concern for Blue Lake Rancheria was the surplus power generation due to its closed facilities, that would represent economic waste. Nevertheless, the smart microgrid controller was a step ahead in identifying the problem and adapting to it. The controller renders educated guess foreseeing the future and self-tunes the storage charging system accordingly. Further, with the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and the anticipation of surge of patients for an unseen time, microgrids can be essential, life saving assets for health care facilities. In California, a power company called 'Bloom Energy', quickly deployed microgrids within a week at the site of two field hospitals, each in Vallejo and Sacramento. In Vallejo, the pop-up field microgrid of 400kW was installed in parking lots and convention centres to accommodate the overflow of COVID-19 patients at the main hospital sourced with 1200kW. In Sacramento, an on-site reliable 400kW fuel cell microgrid project was installed at the Sleep Train Arena to support the critical service and 100 hospital beds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Microgrids have displayed the ability to expand and have played a significant role in relieving pressure on health care facilities.
Microgrids in under-developed African countries have also managed to get a toe hold in the continent's power sector. In remote areas of Africa, the power company 'Winch Energy' has taken a remarkable step to provide reliable energy for the healthcare units and named as 'Winch Clinic'. It is a modular structure mobile healthcare facility housed in 20 to 40-foot containers powered by solar panels integrated with storage batteries. The installed clinic includes four or eight full service rooms between 24 and 48 beds, which can be further expanded. The rooms could be reframed to provide dispensary, surgery room, ICU, consulting room and examination room.
On the other hand, developing nations like India are facing several challenges in the field of microgrid implementation, due to the COVID crisis. India has already installed 63 solar microgrids with a total generation capacity of 1899kWh across the nation prior to the pandemic. It has several ongoing microgrid installation projects, along with planned projects in the pipeline. About 10,000 of renewable mini and microgrid projects were planned, with 500MW generation in tie-up with private companies by 2022. However, the deployment of these projects has been set off track. Amidst the outbreak, India has managed to complete a 2GW solar powered microgrid project. The major hindrance has been the disruption in the global supply chain and restrictions on workforces due to the nation-wide shutdowns implemented by the countries. India imports 80% of clean energy technologies and closing of industries that are part of the supply chain will significantly affect the target dates. Recently, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) in India has extended the deadlines of various activities under the proposed 'One Sun One World One Grid (OSOWOG)' plan due to the prevailing lockdown in several parts of the country. The OSOWOG presents a long-term vision of interconnecting the power transmission grid across the nations (Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia) in three phases. The uncertainty of timely restoration of global supply chains, will not only cause considerable delays but also hit the economy hard and the companies associated with developing microgrids and related technologies.
With the COVID crisis spreading worldwide and expected to persist for months to come, microgrids in the power sector shall play a significant role to alter the conventional energy paradigm. Microgrids have supported the healthcare sectors of countries by providing stable and reliable power supply. All through this period of mass quarantine, frequent power outages remain probable but unacceptable. Microgrids can provide an effective contingency plan to support the existing grids.
This article edited by Vigna Kumaran