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BPU Considers Deploying Microgrids to Deliver Local Power Resiliency

Power outages related to grid failures can affect millions of residents; microgrids can keep critical facilities up and running in towns and communities

princeton microgrid
The microgrid at Princeton University kept the lights on during Hurricane Sandy.

It used to be every town wanted a backup generator to keep the lights on, if the power grid failed. Now, the popular choice may be a community microgrid.

After Hurricane Sandy left nearly 3 million people without power and shut down water-treatment plants, hospitals, and other critical facilities, towns across the state sought backup generators to provide emergency power.

In the storm’s aftermath, a significant pool of federal money was available and demand was high. More than 1,000 applications totaling $469 million were submitted, but only 8 percent ended up funded.

After months of study, state officials are looking at promoting a policy to create a series of microgrids, which would be capable of providing power if the electric grid shuts down during extreme weather.

The New Jersey Board of Utilities directed its staff to develop a set of policies to develop localized power sources that can provide electricity and a safe haven to residents in so-called Town Centers.

“Microgrid systems offer community critical facilities with increased resiliency and a platform to deploy onsite generation with new and emerging technologies,’’ said BPU President Richard Mroz. Those technologies could include fuel cells, solar energy with battery backup, and combined heat and power (CHP) plants, smaller generating units capable of producing electricity and thermal power.

There already are about 50 microgrids operating in New Jersey, some of which kept providing power even though the traditional electric grid suffered massive damage during Sandy. Princeton University’s microgrid with a CHP unit kept the lights on even though the town itself was left without electricity.

Potential locations for so-called advanced microgrids include municipal or county government-critical facilities such as police, fire, and administrative centers, along with other structures that can provide emergency shelters during major storms, in which 100,000 people or more lose power for at least a day. Other potential locations include hospitals, healthcare facilities, and water- and wastewater-treatment plants.

“There is a clear need for local government agencies to improve and enhance their energy resiliency at local critical facilities,’’ according to a 132-page report prepared by the BPU staff. “The availability of energy, if and when the grid goes down at critical facilities, is still a largely unmet demand in New Jersey.’’

That point was underlined during Sandy, when raw sewage spilled into waterways as 94 wastewater treatment plants flooded, and hundreds of drinking-water treatment plants lost power, leading to dozens of boil-water advisories.

To begin to fix the problem, the agency plans to set aside a pool of money in its Clean Energy Fund to pay for feasibility studies for interested towns. The state hopes to have at least one microgrid pilot underway within each of the four electric utility’s service territory, initially limited to the nine counties hardest hit by Sandy.

Eventually, the state hopes to develop a microgrid-financing program with input from various stakeholders. Microgrids are becoming increasingly common across the country as the cost of so-called distributed energy resources falls and extreme weather becomes more common.

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