NRG Energy's Twitter feed promised a big announcement this morning. But instead the news is that Sir Richard Branson is liberating the kite-surfers of Necker Island from the oppression of diesel gen-sets.

Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, along with NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG), is developing "a renewables-driven microgrid for the entire island, supplying high-quality, reliable electricity powered at least 75% by an integrated array of solar, wind and energy storage technologies," according to a release. 

Necker Island is a 74-acre resort island in the British Virgin Islands owned by Branson. The Necker microgrid will allow 30 guests to reduce their reliance on diesel at a rate of $322,000 for seven nights (five-night minimum stay). There is an odd 2 a.m. peak on Necker island, with guests using energy for things you and I cannot afford or even understand.

The effort at Necker is connected to the Ten Island Renewable Challenge which is looking to move islands away from fossil fuels. 

A microgrid is a self-contained system of power generation (typically diesel generators or small-scale turbines), along with distribution and load. Adding non-spinning renewable sources such as wind and solar or storage adds a level of complexity to the system, but microgrids are seen as a natural fit for islands.

Crane, the CEO of NRG, said, "With oil setting the marginal price of electricity, retail electricity prices in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world, hindering economic development, job creation, and quality of life. By tapping into each island’s specific, readily available and ample renewable energy resources, we can achieve an immediate and significant reduction of operating expenses, imported fuel cost, carbon footprint and other air emissions and noise pollution. The renewables-driven microgrid solution being designed and installed on Necker is intended to demonstrate this and provide a scalable real life application relevant to other islands of the Caribbean."

On the subject of billionaire island-owners with microgrids, Larry Ellison's Hawaiian island, Lanai (population 3,000), will soon boast a microgrid with design help from University of California San Diego Professor Byron Washom, the Director of Energy Initiatives at the school. UCSD's microgrid generates most of the energy used on campus.  

Billionaire Peter Thiel's libertarian island's energy needs could also be helped by a microgrid.

Vanity projects and nonprofit efforts aside, here is some real microgrid news, as recently reported by GTM:

  • Primus Power, a developer of flow batteries, is going to deploy an energy storage system for a microgrid at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) in Miramar, California. CEO Tom Stepien said that 20 percent of the backup diesel gen-sets at Miramar did not start on the day of the San Diego blackout in 2011. When a military site like MCAS loses power, "Planes are grounded and training missions are canceled. You can't even open the gates." 
  • New York governor Andrew Cuomo has put $40 million in prize money behind a push to bolster the state’s post-Hurricane Sandy storm resilience with community microgrids, writes GTM's Jeff St. John. The projects are meant to support communities of about 40,000 residents and to operate in conjunction with the grid most of the time. But during emergencies, the microgrids will be able to disconnect from the grid and power themselves, providing islands of stable power for hospitals, police department, fire stations, gas stations and other critical systems.
  • In 2012, Connecticut created a statewide microgrid program with $18 million dedicated to fund nine projects. Connecticut is considered the leader in the region in terms of microgrid support, although other governments are putting funds behind emergency backup power and community energy sufficiency.
  • New Jersey is partnering with the DOE on a $1 million study aimed at supplying microgrid capabilities for New Jersey Transit.
  • New York City is studying a microgrid project for the Rockaway Peninsula as part of its climate change response plan.
  • ABB's grid stabilizing generator combines the inertial properties of a flywheel, the power management functions of advanced inverters, and software to make it all work together. This combination is especially important for microgrids. ABB has installed PowerStore devices in a dozen microgrids across the world. The earliest deployments are in Australia, where Powercorp, the developer of the PowerStore technology, used them to integrate wind power into diesel generator-powered remote grids. ABB started working with the technology in 2006, and bought Powercorp in 2011 for an undisclosed sum, as reported by Jeff St. John.
  • Danish utility Dong Energy has an island showcase for its Power Hub technology in the Faroe Islands, a North Atlantic archipelago. This project, dubbed “Grani,” is balancing an increasing amount of wind power with pumped hydro storage, as well as two sets of variable loads on the island: heat pumps for a salmon breeding facility and two cold-storage facilities for the island’s fishing industry. Adjusting the timing and intensity of heating and cooling to match wind power fluctuations is one example of how supply and demand can be matched.
  • ABB and Schneider are collaborating on the Swedish island of Gotland to combine wind and solar power, grid control systems and advanced load management. 

Diesel-dependent grids in remote areas or on islands remain the most economically attractive setting for microgrids, since they’re reliant on expensive imported fuel, which makes the payback on investing in renewables come more quickly. 

Truly modern microgrids are meant to go beyond diesel generators, incorporating clean, renewable energy resources like rooftop solar PV with energy storage and on-site energy management systems. These could offer not just emergency backup power, but could also serve as models for integrating a range of grid-edge technologies into the grid at large.

That's how the New York State Smart Grid Consortium, a group including state agencies, universities and research labs, big utilities and smart grid vendors like General Electric and IBM, would like to see Cuomo's microgrid push develop. It described the promise of community microgrids as "the means to increase reliability and give local communities more control of their energy systems, while also allowing for the adoption of clean and efficient distributed energy sources such as solar or combined heat and power," not to mention electric vehicle adoption.

One of the key challenges for the microgrids as grid resilience resources is the fact that they’ve got to find ways to pay for themselves that extend beyond keeping the lights on during emergencies. But many of those alternative revenue streams can come into conflict with existing regulations, as well as posing a threat to utility business models that rely on selling power to customers.

As Jeff St. John has reported, "To make the system financially viable requires intelligent design to integrate multiple fuel sources seamlessly and optimization through robust demand management to minimize system size. Renewables-driven microgrids typically use diesel generation -- which currently is the primary source of electricity on most islands in the Caribbean -- as a backup to solar, wind, geothermal and other renewables, drastically reducing diesel consumption while making the model compatible with existing infrastructure."