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Hoboken Explores Smart-Grid Technology to Keep Lights On in Extreme Storms

“The objective is to find as much grant money and subsidies as possible so that the project can be almost self-supporting,” Zellner said.

Coming up with some firm numbers on cost will be an important next step for city officials because stakeholders will want to know how much they’re going to have to come up with to join the grid, according to one source familiar with the project. While the mayor can compel the municipal entities to sign up, it can’t push private entities along the route to join. Even the city’s housing authority has autonomy on a decision like this.

There may also be some regulatory changes that need to pass in order to make the project work, though Zimmer doesn’t imagine that will be a hurdle, given that both state and federal officials are involved in the project.

“We feel like we’re in a good place because we have everyone at the table,” she said.

Locking Down the Grid

The grid will be designed to not only stand up to storms but also to terrorist attacks, or as the report puts it, it “must be able to function during an active attack by a capable adversary.”

“That’s clearly a high level of security,” said one energy expert. “That’s something I would hope would be at the Pentagon. I’m a little curious as to why Hoboken needs that level of security.”

Such security measures shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the grid’s design was created by Sandia, a company that prior to testing renewable energy was conducting tests on the atomic bomb during the Cold War. Sandia’s expertise was not in actually building the weapons but in determining how to get the bombs to their destination -- and the likely affects they would have once they were dropped.

“If you look at a nuclear weapon as having two parts: the part that does the explosion and the part that carries the package there and delivers it, all the things that make sure it gets to the right place, the guidance controls, that’s what we do,” said Robert Hwang, director of Sandia’s Transportation Energy Center.

To achieve that goal, Sandia would conduct computational modeling, which runs through all the potential scenarios: if “A” occurs, then “B” happens. If “A” and “B” occur, then “C” happens.

It’s that kind of modeling that has enabled the company to move into smart-grid technology, where potential users want to know what happens if the sun doesn’t shine, the wind doesn’t blow, or it gets really hot and people turn on their air conditioners all at once? Similarly, if a hurricane blows through, how long it will take to get the alternative power sources up and running. While some companies can test simple cause and effect relationships, Sandia’s models can determine the variety of responses possible with a complex system that has many variables. In the draft report the company gave to Hoboken officials, there were hundreds of pages of computer modeling results.

“Sandia has moved from infrastructure destruction to infrastructure recovery,” said Oliver McGee, an aerospace and mechanical engineer who was a deputy assistant secretary of transportation under President Bill Clinton.

An Exhaustive Evaluation

Sandia came up with a plan for Hoboken’s smart grid after running about 5,000 scenarios that looked at every route, every cost, and analyzed things like, “What if this substation goes out and the sun goes out for this many days?”

“We’ve actually developed a technology that we call Energy Surety Design Methodology, which is a way of designing microgrids to make sure that critical functions can remain operating for a specified amount of time,” Hwang said. “We figure out the functions that need to stay on, the hospital needs to stay on, the water and sewerage needs to stay on, and we then design a grid for those entities that need to stay on, and for how long.”

The company initially got into this area by designing microgrids for military bases for the Department of Defense. It developed the technology through that experience.

“We worked with 17 different military bases, to help them design microgrids and allow them to function their most critical needs when they need them. Now, because of things like Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters, we’re working with communities like Hoboken,” Hwang said, noting that Hoboken’s project is the first use of this design methodology that is not military.

But while Sandia’s expertise is in modeling, its goal is often national security. Given Hoboken’s proximity to Manhattan, sources say this project isn’t just about keeping Hoboken lit. It’s about keeping New York City safe.

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