Power Islands: solar microgrids and the future of sustainability
When technology is used correctly, it can be a powerful solution to our problems. Yes, we can use technology to instantly connect with a loved one who is thousands of miles away, but we can also use it to literally harness the power of the sun.
Last month, IP&E, which operates Shell stations in Guam, Saipan and Palau, announced the completion of a solar microgrid that could power one of its gas stations without being connected to the main power grid. This is a big deal for renewable energy technology because it’s the first commercial site on Guam to be off-grid.
First, but definitely not the last.
Globally, the renewable energy sector is gaining momentum. There is a growing demand for clean energy from both utilities and corporate entities as governments and businesses pledge to transition to net-zero emissions.
Even in our corner of the world, renewable energy is a major priority and there have been efforts to make the shift. In October, the CNMI Public School System unveiled a project to power its schools with solar energy, a first in the region.
On Guam, the Guam Power Authority is on the path to include 50 percent renewable energy in its portfolio by 2035 and 100 percent by 2045.
In October of last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs announced $8.5 million in grant awards to support energy initiatives in the territories, which includes significant funding for solar energy projects at Guam Community College, University of Guam, Commonwealth Utilities Corp., and the Tinian municipality, to name a few.
One way to meet this demand for reliable, clean energy is to build microgrids.
A microgrid is a self-sustaining energy system that can operate independently from a community’s main power grid. Ideally, a microgrid integrates reliable renewable energy resources, like solar, with energy storage. This way, the microgrid can provide energy to a facility even if the main power grid goes down due to a natural disaster or technical issue. The process of producing power off the grid can be referred to as “islanding” and microgrids are called “power islands.”
Microgrids lower energy costs for the owner, who would no longer have to pay for electricity from the power company. On top of benefits to the owner, microgrids can help the whole community. They can reduce an energy provider’s peak power requirements and alleviate grid congestion. Microgrids provide efficiencies, like preventing line loss – the dissipation of electricity as it travels the distance between the power source and the recipient – where this is an issue.
In recent years, the cost of solar and battery energy-storage components has declined, making them more accessible and cost-effective. In addition, new technology has improved microgrids with better materials, digital controls and improved capacity.
There are incentives to installing microgrids, as well. Under the Build Back Better Act, microgrids are among the new technologies that are eligible for a 30 percent investment tax credit for residential projects. In addition, a solar investment tax credit of as much as 26 percent of the cost of the solar photovoltaic system is available for commercial entities that begin construction in 2020, 2021 or 2022.
Commercial entities have much to gain from installing microgrids. It takes significant energy to keep the lights, equipment and air-conditioner running. Plus, many industries are dependent on steady electricity, such as health care, data centers and manufacturing. Any power fluctuation can cause disruptions to their operations.
Early adopters are taking the leap and creating their own power islands. IP&E’s solar microgrid at its Shell Fuel Station and Foody’s Convenience Store in Upper Tumon is powered by 480 solar panels and a 588kwh energy storage system.
We’ll see a lot more offerings for commercial renewable energy with the entry of Solenergy Micronesia into the markets in Guam, CNMI and Palau. Solenergy Micronesia is the new arm of Solenergy Systems Inc. based in the Philippines, whose portfolio consists of 112,920kW of solar PV installed capacity throughout the country.
Power purchasing agreements with financing will make renewable energy accessible to businesses. Malls, business centers, medical facilities and more will have the opportunity to generate their own power.
By investing in solar microgrids, businesses can control their energy costs, keep operational costs down, and prevent loss of productivity. Lower operational costs don’t just benefit the business, but also the economy. When businesses enjoy the return on their investments, it helps keep prices low and allows businesses to use any excess money elsewhere, like hiring more employees. As the renewable energy industry ramps up, it will create jobs from engineers to technicians to skilled labor.
There are some challenges, as there usually are when any new technology is introduced. On Guam, for instance, installation is limited to 100kW PV panels. Regulations and standards must be developed or re-examined that allow the sector to blossom in a safe, but fair manner.
Above all, the vision is to provide reliable, affordable, and resilient energy for our islands and beyond. We may one day see a future where renewable energy is the primary source of power for our villages and homes and where charging stations for electrical vehicles are available at every public place.
It all starts with a few responsible role models. It starts with taking the steps to make a hard, but necessary, transition.
While renewable energy and microgrids may not immediately replace fossil fuels, if at all, it’s a step toward a sustainable future.
— Jay R. Shedd is executive vice president of Citadel Pacific, the parent company of PTI Pacific, Inc. which does business as IT&E, IP&E. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, business development, sales and marketing.