The power grid is one of those technical marvels that we largely take for granted. Just as gasoline flows reliably and cheaply on nearly every street corner, and we can call someone halfway around the world from a pocket-sized device, electricity is so reliable and ubiquitous that we rarely give it a second thought.
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Power delivery has also changed little over the past several decades. Despite tech leaders placing increasing demands on power grids, it’s a safe assumption that power isn’t a significant concern. At least, that’s until a disruption arrives.
The past decade or so has seen significant power disruptions, most recently a combination of factors causing blackouts in large swaths of Texas, several other large-scale disruptions due to everything from wildfires and aging infrastructure, and cascading failures in the power grid resulting in outages across much of the northeast in 2003.
Tech leaders have mitigated these incidents with redundant systems at data centers and other vital locations; however, as the workforce has become more dispersed, keeping our critical systems and our key workers powered becomes more challenging.
Microgrids: what’s old is new again
The idea of microgrids, small independent power generation and distribution systems, has been touted as an emerging technology. However, many companies owned their own local electrical generation and distribution systems in the early days of electrification.
Backup generators, home batteries and solar panels are becoming more ubiquitous, but these systems are generally fixed. What’s new is an emerging class of microgrid systems that are portable, easy to use and reasonably flexible, combining solar power generation, battery storage and fossil fuel-based power generation in a consumer-friendly format.
One example of this technology comes from EcoFlow and its DELTA line of power equipment that can be mixed and matched to build a customizable microgrid. The core of the system, the DELTA Pro, combines battery storage, AC and DC power distribution, a solar charge controller and a Wi-Fi access radio for management and inter-device communication.
The DELTA Pro can be plugged into the company’s 400W solar panel “briefcase,” a 25-pound foldable package that, combined with the internal battery, can charge laptops and power home office network equipment. A gasoline-powered smart generator is also available and connects to the DELTA Pro to provide additional power when solar is unavailable or the loads are too high to rely solely on solar.
While gas-powered generators are nothing new, the EcoFlow devices communicate over a local Wi-Fi network. This allows the gas generator to be configured via a mobile app only to run when the battery reaches a certain threshold or between certain hours.
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In a test run, I set up the solar panel, DELTA Pro and gas generator, connecting my home office desktop, monitors and laptops. Runtimes depend significantly on the equipment that’s connected. In this case, my setup was drawing about 230W, and the DELTA Pro estimated that it could power the setup essentially infinitely when the solar was connected and in full sunlight, since the panel generated between 250W and 330W. With the panel removed, the system reported 13 hours of power. The smart generator will charge the DELTA Pro from 0% about 1 to 1.5 times off a full tank of fuel, which is a bit over a gallon of gasoline, allowing me to work around 30 hours before running out of power and without any sun.
In a scenario like the Texas blackouts, a critical remote worker or small office could setup the EcoFlow hardware, plugging the DELTA Pro into a wall outlet or even an EV charger with a special adapter, the 400W solar panel and the gas generator, the latter placed outside to avoid carbon monoxide. Employees could plug critical devices into the unit and stay powered. At the same time, the DELTA Pro recharged its internal battery via solar power, grid power if available or using the gas generator as a last resort. Additional battery units can be attached as needed, providing longer runtimes during cloudy days or reducing generator use.
The combined package creates an independent, locally managed power grid. With the right combination of sun, gasoline and grid activations, the system can provide power as long as the components are working.
These systems are not yet portable enough to be tossed in a box and shipped out from a central location. The core components of the EcoFlow microgrid (core unit, 400W solar system, gas generator and assorted cables) weigh around 200 lbs. and would likely require a pallet to ship. However, they fit in the back of an average sedan or pickup. This setup could be readily distributed from a regional office in an emergency or stored in a garage corner for critical employees or regional offices.
Similarly, while costs are prohibitive for wide distribution, with the aforementioned system retailing at $6,200 for the key components, however, like most disaster mitigation calculations, that price may look extremely small if the alternative is a crucial individual being disconnected during an extended power outage or forced to make a risky move in order to access another location with power. That $6,200 may be a pittance compared with lost revenue.
As our workforces become more distributed, disaster mitigation becomes more challenging since it’s no longer confined to a limited number of physical locations. Fortunately, emerging technologies like mobile microgrids may help answer some of these challenges and are worth investigating and considering by tech leaders.