The Rise of Microgrids Creates Opportunity for Pittsburgh Region

Paul Connors, Marketing Director for Electrical Engineering Systems and Services, Eaton

“But that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

This is a statement that can be absolutely detrimental to companies – and one that has been completely thrown away when it comes to one of the cornerstones of our modern lives. The way humans rely on energy and importantly, what they are powering, has created a completely reimagining of how we produce, consume, and intelligently manage electricity.

The electricity grids were built with a very simple idea in mind: generate power in one location and then transport it to where it would be used. This one-way flow has been the standard for decades, but we are now seeing trends driving the energy transition to create a more responsive and intelligent way of managing electricity. The main drivers are increased electrification, an increase in renewable use, and a need for grid resiliency.

We are seeing a change not just in how much electricity is being used, but how it is being used. Globally, increased electrification rate is being driven by expanding access to power along with more products. For example, there is an anticipated 50% increase in proportion of global building energy from electricity by 2050 and 75 million projected EV chargers by 2030.

There is a growing demand for integrating more clean energy into our power generation mix plus numerous government and corporate net-zero pledges which is aligning with public sentiment. A recent poll found that 69 percent of Americans want the United States to become carbon neutral by 2050. Renewables offer new ways to structure electrical grids since they can be deployed in areas where power generation was not previously available and often form the basis of microgrids.

Of course, to achieve our energy transition goals, additional storage capacity will be needed. Wind and solar are intermittent power producers and need to be supplemented by other sources such as natural gas or energy storage systems to provide a consistent source of energy.

This is a massive shift that is transformative for energy. Imagine the capacity and capability upgrades needed to not just keep the system flowing, but to manage it and maximize its potential. It is now possible to manage where, when, and how electricity is consumed.

Microgrids are one of the most referenced newer technologies as part of this shift, but at Eaton, we have been designing and deploying microgrids for more than a decade. The great news is the benefits of the decentralization of our energy systems is adding complexity, but also providing for exciting potential. At Eaton, we call it the Everything as A Grid perspective as we educate and assist businesses and homeowners as they consider the shift to having more involvement in their electricity consumption.

Our Power Systems Experience Center in Warrendale, Pa. (just north of the City of Pittsburgh) serves as a technical demonstration for businesses and institutions as they examine and evaluate solutions for their needs. They can make decisions to best fit their needs while also staying connected to the overall system and even sell excess energy back to the grid. And of course, an added benefit of the shift to decentralized power generation is the integration of renewable energy sources. Businesses are able to examine their power needs, potentially earn revenue from selling back through the grid, and also contribute to the greening of our energy supply.

It’s not just private investments that are driving this shift. Last year, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law which is injecting over a trillion dollars into programs around infrastructure, including billions of dollars specifically focused on the electricity grid in this nation. The pandemic has especially highlighted the need for a resilient, reliable grid that can reach citizens where they are. The Pittsburgh region is well positioned to take advantage of these funds to reimagine what is best not just now, but also for future growth and for our future residents. It truly is an exciting time in energy.

We have entered a new age where we are able to make decisions about our electricity consumption. The transformation of the old system and the integration of emerging technology will allow it to grow with our needs and to provide stability in the future. Because one thing is certain – the way we have always done it is a relic of the past.