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WNC Business

Bringing awareness to money- and life-saving energy technology

Sep 12, 2023 01:06PM ● By Randee Brown

Using microgrids to increase community resilience is a major goal of the Critical Services Microgrid Group, according to Cofounder and Concept Developer Keith Thomson.

Born out of the Energy Innovation Task Force in 2020, members of the CSM Group wanted to continue working together to help and steady decision-making in both the public and private sectors, so they created a volunteer professional and student network that is interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and intercollegiate.

“We are all volunteers; most members have a business or some other work that we are doing,” Thomson said. “We get together in our free time and listen to and learn from each other, collectively learning more about microgrids and their systems and capacities. Part of our mission is to be succinct in explaining the benefits of microgrids to others and to have people go ‘aha!,’ but it’s not easy to elicit that response.”

Thomson said members of the intergenerational group range from retired experts who have been in the renewable energy sector for 50+ years to a younger generation bringing knowledge of newly introduced software. He said it is exciting for the older members to be in a mentorship position with the younger members, and they all bring valuable knowledge into the group.

Microgrids are everywhere, according to Thomson. When the power goes out and a home or business switches to generator power — that’s a microgrid. A ship, unplugged from shore power, is a microgrid. The CSM Group advocates for more microgrids throughout the region, state, and the country, explaining that microgrids powered by solar energy have the ability to back up and eventually replace other types of power systems, reducing the need for fossil fuels, saving people money, and saving lives.

For example, Thomson said natural events such as high winds and droughts can cause energized power lines to cause forest fires. A solar-powered microgrid can help to keep power in place without endangering people at the edges of these forests, and he said Duke Energy has proved it can be done.

“There is a major power line running through Pisgah National Forest to the community of Hot Springs that sometimes has to be shut off,” Thomson said. “A microgrid in place in Hot Springs uses solar plus a battery backup system plus a load management system. When that major power line has to be shut off, the microgrid powers the town.”

Thomson said the group is working with the City of Asheville and Buncombe County to help them better understand the value of using critical services microgrids to power government facilities, police, and fire stations. Major businesses that may lose thousands of dollars of revenue if their power is shut down for a short period of time could also benefit from this technology. He said not only can these entities power their own locations with solar power, but a battery backup system that ties into the grid could also power parts of the community when the major grid goes down.

Buncombe County is preparing to do more, according to Thomson. Some of these ideas are being integrated into the county’s 2024 Comprehensive Plan and include projects like the installation of rooftop solar on county buildings, parking decks, public schools, and community colleges. These projects are creating jobs, saving money in the community, and inviting more people into a community that is a healthy place to live, according to Thomson.

“Getting more people to realize microgrids can play a role in saving money and saving lives is priceless,” Thomson said. “We are working to help propagate that knowledge.”

Critical Services Microgrid Group has been actively working with students at Warren Wilson College and UNC Asheville for more than two years on projects including mobile microgrid vehicles, according to Thomson. He said the group also works with faculty and students collecting data using energy audits and smart meters and getting faculty to learn and teach software programs that are “rough drafts of microgrids,” tools to gain and share visual information.

Thomson said the budget to build these microgrid vehicles was very tight, and the aspiration to teach sustainability led to some of these vehicles being built beginning with basic frames off of a trash pile. “There were no hubs or wheels, just a nice aluminum frame and a plastic battery cabinet,” he said.

The fleet of vehicles was built by four students along with Thomson and N. Moorthy Muthukrishnan, Ph.D., Lecturer of Engineering at UNCA and a member of CSM Group. These microgrid vehicles use solar power to run, and more than that, they also power tools and other equipment to work on maintenance projects around the Warren Wilson campus.

These mobile microgrids are proof that microgrids work well, according to Thomson. “It’s a technical innovation that uses less energy,” he said. “Businesses are a critical part of that — everyone can implement a microgrid and everyone can see the money saved. They provide clean, renewable energy that can still be used when the major grid goes down. Models like these would be great additions to the city. Even the best can always get better.”