Can Renewable Energy-Driven Microgrids Power Remote and Islanded Places?
New England states, including New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, have some of the highest utility rates in the country. In fact, New Hampshire’s utility rate exceeds 20 cents per kilowatt hour, nearly double what some states like Washington and Idaho pay. Yet, it is not just the cost of electricity that is a challenge for many residents and rural communities in the region. Also challenging is the lack of a resilient supply of electricity; places may be subject to frequent outages — both short-and long-term — as well as an insufficient supply of electricity.
Particularly hit hard are remote and "islanded" places that lack a sustainable and reliable supply of electricity.
The term islanded simply means that a place is vulnerable to high energy costs and/or insufficient energy supply because of factors such as remoteness, poor infrastructure, frequent storm events, or other barriers, such as being surrounded by water and thereby disconnected from the mainland.
To address these challenges, the University of New Hampshire sought and received funding from the US Economic Development Administration to advance sustainable and affordable energy technologies and facilitate knowledge and technology transfer that will guide implementation of those technologies. The research team, led by Diane Foster, director of UNH’s Marine School, is in the process of generating a deeper understanding of the energy needs of islanded and remote places, such as the Isles of Shoals (N.H.), Monhegan Island (M.E.), Islesboro (M.E.) and even county complexes in New Hampshire’s North Country that need to provide power for a jail, nursing home and other county-run facilities.
For such places, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are increasingly becoming feasible and cost-effective options. However, many remote and islanded places lack the technical knowledge, financial capital and human capacity to implement such solutions.
As such, an outreach team led by Charlie French with UNH Extension is seeking to understand the unique challenges facing islanded places in order to develop a toolkit to guide them through the complex decision process and determine the best energy alternative. Given new federal funding and various energy incentive programs, the development of renewable energy-driven microgrid systems is becoming a viable option for many places.
A microgrid is a self-sufficient energy system that can provide power to a specific area, such as an island, a hospital, a county complex, a neighborhood or even a business.
The toolkit seeks to address some key challenges facing islanded communities that the research team uncovered through visits to a dozen islands and remote places. These findings include:
- The cost of energy varies greatly from one place to another
- Community leaders lack an understanding of how the electrical transmission grid works
- The optimal energy solution varies greatly from one place to another
- Communities often don’t know where to start when considering their energy alternatives
- Renewable energy sources can be a long-term, cost-effective solution for many places
- Communities need help navigating the technical, financial and policy aspects and other barriers to energy resilience, which is provided by organizations like the Island Institute and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Not only will this project help communities embark on a thoughtful process to explore their energy challenges and opportunities, but it will also result in a microgrid testbed on the Isles of Shoals where various interoperability systems can be tested and optimized. Professors Martin Wosnik, Ph.D., and Weiwei Mo, Ph.D., from UNH’s College of Engineering and Physical Science are working with Jennifer Seavey, Ph.D., and Ross Hansen at the Shoals Marine Lab to deploy a solar and wind-driven microgrid system to generate power for the extensive laboratory and housing facilities on the island.
Their goal is to provide guidance so that other islanded places deploying microgrid systems can optimize their systems to reduce cost, maximize energy storage and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.