State Starts to Think Seriously About Deploying Microgrids

Trenton’s downtown thermal-energy district funded to determine if microgrids can deliver power and other vital services when power grid goes down

Richard Mroz, BPU president
Trenton’s relatively unnoticed energy center, which has delivered heating and cooling to 30 buildings in the capital for 34 years, is looking to get an impressive upgrade.

The downtown thermal-energy district network is one of 13 town centers divvying up $2 million in state money to study the possibility of establishing microgrids —energy centers capable of providing the power and other needs to keep critical services running even if the traditional power grid fails.

Greater resilience and reliability

The study is part of the Christie administration’s efforts to build greater resiliency and reliability into services that often were disrupted or curtailed during major storms like Hurricane Sandy. Hospitals were evacuated, drinking-water supplies polluted, and billions of gallons of raw sewage-fouled the state’s waterways as various systems shut down, sometimes for a week or more.

The Board of Public Utilities hopes that the communities will use the money to figure out if establishing town-center microgrids is the way to ensure critical facilities are kept up and operating.

In most cases, the towns, or in a few instances, counties, will look into developing smaller, but efficient power units, dubbed combined heat and power (CHP), to provide the electricity and heat needed to keep services running. Or they may opt to try energy storage systems, fuel cells, or other emerging technologies.

Microgrids are not a new concept, but have gained many adherents as more reliance is being put on distributed energy resources, or smaller, localized power units, to provide backup power.

Underground network

In Trenton, Veolia Energy already operates a network of underground pipes delivering heating and cooling to buildings in the State House Complex, including the State House, Justice Complex and SunBank Arena, according to BPU president Richard Mroz.

“We see it as a critical next step forward in advancing the infrastructure,’’ said Kevin Nelson, a senior vice president, while giving officials and reporters a tour of the facility on South Warren Street, a few blocks from the State House.

The study will look at expanding that network and Veolia’s own equipment, including a CHP plant delivering 6 megawatts of electricity to customers. Veolia also will look at energy-efficiency measures that can reduce usage, and may also opt to put in solar systems to help power the network, according to executives. Reducing the facility’s carbon footprint is one of the goals of Veolia, they said.

The state Department of the Treasury, along with Mercer County, the Mercer County Improvement Authority, and the city of Trenton filed the application for the Trenton microgrid.

Determining whether such a microgrid is feasible — both economically and technically — is expected to take about six months, according to Mroz. If the answer is in the affirmative, the state will decide to push ahead with more detailed engineering work, a process that could take a year or more.

Besides Trenton, the agency awarded money to Atlantic City, Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority, Camden County, Galloway Township, Highland Park, Hoboken, Hudson County, Middletown Township, Montclair Township, Neptune Township, Paterson, and Woodbridge Township.

“As these town-center microgrids are developed around the state, communities will have the power and freedom to keep critical facilities such as hospitals, police, and fire stations; water and wastewater treatment plants; and buildings used to shelter residents in operation and running independent of the grid during emergencies,’’ Mroz said.