The Mobile Microgrid: Is It Almost Here?

Life without our mobile phone seems pretty unimaginable, doesn’t it? We now carry along our phone/camera/computer in our hands, and, if you want to believe a recent movie, some of us even fall in love with the personal assistant. “(You) Siri – why am I here?…(Siri) I can’t answer that for you, can I?”

But what about microgrids, why not have a personal mobile i-power source? If you bear with me I’ll show you why that isn’t so farfetched. The mobile “i-uGrid” may already be on the way.

First, disasterous weather events and always-charged EVs are easy reasons to have them. As the recent hurricanes have made all too apparent, the occurrence of power outages is going to be a real issue in the near future. But also, EVs that can carry along a charging unit would make them very appealing. No need to hop charging station to station — imagine being completely untethered from a gas station.

What is a microgrid but a power generator, a storage block, a control unit, and a hook up to the dedicated load? I’ve already seen companies put those elements together, attach some wheels and start selling the system as a mobile microgird. The issues with a personal mobile microgrid are the same issues faced by the original mobile phones: how to make the combination smaller, better, and affordable. And while we have a long way to go before we get to an i-uGrid with a talking OS, we’ve started down this path and it could sure use some extra creativity.

There are a few substantial limitations. For instance, let’s take solar. Solar panels would be a great candidate for a power source, and definitely should be part of the i-uGrid but they are too big. The solar irradiance at sea level is about 1 kW per sq meter. That’s decent power since with a couple of square meters you’re near the amount needed for a (very) small house. But the problem is that PV conversion efficiency is only about 20 percent. This means that to get any decent generation capacity you need at least 5 times more area covered and it only works 1/3 of the day. That means you go from a simple mobile i-uGrid trailer to a rock-band-tour-bus-caravan for that house. 

But if you throw in some novel generation (hydrogen fuel), and some old-fashioned generation (diesel gen sets), you can get back down to a behind-the-minivan-trailer. Put in some good lightweight Li-ion batteries, and a good control unit, and you’ve got a mostly mobile microgrid. Ok, it’s not an iPhone yet.

Recent hurricanes, floods, and forest fires are making this idea more and more relevant. Sadly, there were fatalities in Florida nursing homes due to lack of power. We can’t count on the power company to keep us powered up, so we must rely on our own portable energy source. If there were a community owned fleet of mobile i-uGrids, they could be deployed when these disasters hit.  In fact, one company, WorldWaterSolar, just told me that they are shipping about 10 mobile units to the US hurricane areas. These units employ solar panels for water pumping and purifying.  This is an example of the very concept we need to develop.

Of course, we have to go after the two other parts: how to make it better and cost effective. (In an upcoming post I’ll cover the latter for batteries.)  

The iPhone didn’t start out with all the functionality and the compactness it now has. It took major creative pressure. If we could bring that creative pressure to the mobile microgrid, we could achieve the same result.

Maybe in 20 years we’ll be commuting in our self-driving i-cars, sleeping, while our mobile i-uGrid follows behind giving us personal mobile power. Or maybe we will all drown in floods that make Noah’s ark seem like a bathtub kids boat. Feeling any creative pressure yet? Wait, I think it’s starting to rain outside….

Also Check Out:

5 Prospects for Renewable Microgrid Technology Innovation

Dr. Skumanich’s Most Recent Report: Market Analysis for Energy Storage and Batteries: Forecast to 2030 and to TW levels

Lead image of a home being flooded credit:

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Dr. Andy Skumanich is a successful Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur. He is currently CEO and founder of SolarVision Co, which is a technology business development company focused on alternative energy with a core team of technologists. He is a global expert on micro-grids and has participated as part of a team installing >1MW of micro-grids in developing countries. For the storage sector, he is providing strategic guidance for several leading global battery companies. He co-founded Advenira, a Silicon Valley start-up that is developing advanced coatings and performance thin films, where he was an Executive Officer and Board of Directors member. Prior he was providing executive level support for various solar start-ups including SiGen, and Innovalight, as VP of Business Development. He was a Senior Technologist at Applied Materials – the Solar division, and the Semi division. Before that he was a staff scientist at IBM Research Labs. He got his PhD from UC Berkeley in Physics with a thesis on thin films for PV and electronics. He is a Hertz Foundation fellow, and is a member of the global renewable energy community, often presenting at international conferences. His peer-reviewed papers include topics on Micro-grids as well as other key technology trends. He is sought after for presentations on micro-grids, and is an on-line instructor for several micro-grid courses.

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