Iowans looking towards microgrids and other energy alternatives following derecho and Texas blackouts

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 11:03 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - After last month’s winter storms in Texas left millions without power, and the August derecho in Eastern Iowa left people without power for weeks, a professor in California said it was time to start improving infrastructure.

Prairiewoods Franciscan Spiritual Center in Hiawatha has some of those resources in place. Its main facility was powered 40% by renewable energy. Some of its buildings were completely off the main electrical grid and powered by a solar panel.

“During the derecho, we brought our food up here, and it kept very well,” said Sister Nancy Hoffman with the Prairiewoods Franciscan Spiritual Center.

The main focus of the nonprofit was to educate people on renewable energy. Two of its small hermitage homes were solely powered by a single solar panel. Hoffman said their main facility was without power because of the storm. Those two small houses off the grid still had power because the solar panel wasn’t damaged.

“We felt so grateful because there were two large trees right outside of the buildings, and they did not fall on it, nor did they fall on the panels themselves,” she said.

Experts said this worked well for these two small homes, but wasn’t viable for an everyday home. However, adding a separate microgrid off the main-grid could power a string of homes, businesses, or hospitals.

“You can think of a microgrid as a smaller version of the larger grid,” said University of California San Diego Professor Nicholas Abi-Samra. “It has generation, distribution, and load.”

Professor Abi-Samra teaches Electrical Engineering at the university. He also investigates power outages after large storms such as the derecho and the winter blast in Texas.

While he said a microgrid off the main-grid could have helped keep the power in both of these storms, he said maintaining the grid was critical.

“If you think a microgrid would be the solution for all, no, “he said. “It has to be part of the toolbox which will provide system security and resilience for the system.”

While Abi-Samra continues to speak with people about the importance of maintaining and updating the main-grid, Sister Hoffman said more people were asking her team how they can make changes to use less, but keep getting the energy they needed.

“The people that reach out are generally younger people,” she said. “I think they’re looking to their future.”

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