The Rise of Clean Microgrids utilizing Propane as a Sustainability Choice

June 16, 2022
In fact, the United States endures more blackouts than any other developed nation. This loss of power to commercial buildings has energy professionals looking to build more energy resilient buildings and one way to do that is the microgrid

Unplanned outages have increased as the U.S. places growing electricity demands on a century-old grid.

In fact, the United States endures more blackouts than any other developed nation. And according to federal databases at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the number of U.S. outages lasting more than an hour have increased steadily over the past decade.

This loss of power to commercial buildings can impact vital systems like smoke and fire detection, elevators, refrigeration units, heating and cooling equipment, health and safety equipment, communications, and many other applications. This has construction professionals looking to build more resilient buildings and one way to do that is microgrids.

A microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously. Within microgrids are one or more kinds of distributed energy—solar panels, wind turbines, combined heat and power, generators—that produce its power and often energy storage solutions. This is helpful during sudden or planned power outages. The quest for a more reliable, secure, and clean energy system is driving investment in microgrid technologies that can deliver superior reliability and resiliency for the nation’s aging and vulnerable grid.

Propane, which is easily transported and stored on site for indefinite periods of time, offers economic and environmental benefits that make it the best low-carbon energy source for microgrids. The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) has an analysis called, The Opportunity for Propane in Microgrids, that illustrates the benefits of using propane generators in hybrid microgrids in commercial applications. It shows how propane is competitive to diesel for microgrid applications. Propane offers lower emissions, comparable levelized costs of electricity, and resiliency.

Propane is an environmentally friendly energy source

Severe weather events coupled with natural disasters have led to increased electrical grid failures. Whether planned or unplanned, power outages can happen at any time. In response to the outages, there’s been a spike in generator sales. The rise is seen in storm-wrecked coastal areas, inland tornado alleys, and particularly in places like California. For many years, diesel has been the chosen generator fuel. As more and more diesel generators are being purchased, harmful emissions continue to impact communities. According to data from PERC, propane is the better option and can help lower emissions. One way propane can do that is through microgrid applications.

A new study from PERC called, Power Generation: The Emissions Shifting Problem, looks at the recent trends in power generation, microgrids, and how propane systems can offer a low emissions and resilient solution for commercial construction professionals and their customers. Compared to diesel, propane significantly improves local air quality by mitigating nitrogen oxides and particulate matter which are known health hazards. According to PERC, propane also emits significantly less carbon and criteria pollutants than diesel-powered generators. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), propane is 16 percent cleaner than diesel when it comes to CO2 per unit of energy.

Additionally, microgrids that utilize propane as an energy source get even cleaner when renewable propane is considered. Renewable propane is made from a mix of waste residues and sustainably sourced materials—including agricultural waste products, cooking oil, and meat fats. Because it’s produced from renewable feedstocks, renewable propane is even cleaner than conventional propane—and far cleaner than other energy options. Renewable propane’s chemical structure and physical properties are the same as conventional propane, which means it can be used for all the same applications without any modifications to engines or equipment. In California, the propane industry has pledged 100 percent renewable sourcing by 2030.

In its 2021 wildfire mitigation plan report, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) identified that a technology combination of solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery energy storage with supplemental propane gensets is not only the most cost effective and reliable solution for initial remote grid sites, but also the cleanest.

Propane is a safe and resilient energy source

Microgrids help improve the resiliency of local electricity distribution systems, that’s part of why they’re growing in popularity. They represent a groundbreaking approach that helps solve several of the problems facing California’s cities.

To provide an alternate power solution to customers located in Mariposa County, solar energy company BoxPower and generator manufacturer Generac provided solar PV with battery backup and a propane generator as a solution to reduce wildfires in one of California’s high-risk areas. Instead of ruggedizing the transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, which could cost more than one million dollars per mile in remote locations, electric utilities deenergized the T&D lines and installed these microgrid solutions to avert forest fires. Based on the success of the microgrid applications, PG&E plans to install 20 more in the next year.

In the event of a larger-scale emergency, microgrids can “island” their service area, meaning detachment from the main electrical grid. The microgrid continues providing electricity until the larger grid is restored. A literal island example of how propane pairs with solar to provide power and reliable energy to its people can be found in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two separate electricity grids are at work there and the generating units combine propane with solar power facilities. The EIA says propane use is expected to cut generating plant emissions up to 20 percent, helping the Islands meet clean air standards and cutting future fuel surcharges by 30 percent.

Microgrid systems ultimately provide peace of mind, especially for commercial operations were refrigeration for cold storage needs or other inventory protections that can fail if utility power is interrupted. Propane power generation equipment used in microgrid applications can help businesses increase safety and resiliency allowing them to retain their clean operation even with a power failure. Propane is an affordable energy choice capable of delivering efficient, on-site energy during power outages. Replacing diesel assets with propane-powered equipment will continue to push us toward significant air quality improvements and decarbonization.

To see more of PERC’s research supporting the benefits of using propane in microgrid applications, visit

About the author: Bryan Cordill is the director of residential and commercial business development at the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at [email protected].