Microgrids could help reduce mass power outages

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is offering towns money to conduct feasibility studies to create microgrids.

By Briana Vannozzi

A microgrid works as a small-scale, localized power system. It generally operates while connected to the main electrical grid. But its most important function is providing back-up power, like in the event of a mass outage such as Superstorm Sandy. That left almost 3 million people without power and shut down hospitals, even water-treatment plants.

A microgrid breaks off independently. Powered by distributed generators, batteries, combined heat and power or renewable sources like wind and solar. It keeps critical systems up, when the grid goes down.

“Because of the resiliency needs, because of what’s happening with storms and our concerns that there might be outages from the larger electric grid, we need to pursue these efforts,” said Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Rich Mroz.

The state wants to build multiple community microgrids. They’ll serve critical facilities, like hospitals or fire stations — ideally within a one-mile radius of each other, or in what’s dubbed town centers. The state mapped about two dozen communities slammed by Sandy, showing a need for a microgrid. Now the state Board of Public Utilities is offering towns money to conduct feasibility studies. Mroz says college campuses make ideal locations.

“We often point to Princeton University, which has had for many years its own microgrid. They incorporate an onsite generation facility, hydroelectric storage and solar. So they incorporate at the university various elements of these distributed resources and they’ve been successful from the standpoint of managing their own electricity and energy costs with the managing of that microgrid. And then of course during storm events, most particularly Sandy, the university could run as an island off the grid,” Mroz said.

When the town of Princeton went dark during Sandy, Princeton University’s microgrid kept the lights on.

“This happened in late October. We had a lot of students on campus and many of them didn’t even know that we had lost utility power in the area,” said Tom Nyquist, executive director of engineering and campus energy at Princeton University.

Princeton has its own underground electrical distribution system connected to public service and its combined heat and power plant is a model touted throughout the state.

“We’re making electricity, we’re making steam and using either the electric or the steam we can also make chill water for the entire campus. So we get great efficiencies which is good for the economics of the project and it’s also really good for resilience,” Nyquist said.

“I don’t think people realize how much dependence we have on energy. Thirty years ago it was not the case. Today whether it’s your phone, or your communications, or when you go to the bathroom, the sinks don’t work unless the censor works. We are so reliant on it that really what has happened is we are now catching up to the fact that this should have always been part of our planning,” said Adam Zellner, president of Greener by Design.

The state already has about 50 microgrids operating. NJ Transit is working to build its own localized power infrastructure, also a result of Sandy damage. Zellner is working on the design and planning for systems in Woodbridge Township and Hoboken.

“These are a community-based microgrid where smaller generation at each of these distributed places is going to come into play with likely one major source, a large engine, that will help produce the back-up for all of it. So that’s this whole idea for Hoboken and Woodbridge and other places where you have a lot of density and a lot of low lying land. Frankly it is difficult to move all of that density out of a flood plane very quickly, so the better strategy might be shelter in place,” Zellner said.

Zellner says these microgrids will likely use anywhere from 10 to 20 megawatts of power and rely on multiple energy sources.

Hoboken is spending roughly $50 million to keep about 55 critical buildings online in the event of an emergency. The city will “own” the microgrid, but it will likely be a private developer acting as manager.

Who would oversee and be responsible for maintaining and repairing these systems?

“That’s a big question, and that’s one we have to explore in this process. There would need to be an owner and operator of those. It could very well be that the distribution companies, the current electric companies, could have a specific role in running those in the future. Or it could be a private developer that actually manages that kind of distributed energy resource,” Mroz said.

“I believe absolutely that we will play a role,” said PSE&G Vice President of Asset Management and Centralized Services Jorge Cardinas.

PSE&G executives say to make this type of service available to mass amounts of people, it’ll require the experience and help of public utilities. Cardinas believes the main power grid will remain the most economical and accessible form of energy for customers. He sees the need for microgrids in vulnerable areas and to cut down on costs during peak energy hours.

“We want to evolve to better serve the customer that demands more. When it’s all said and done, everybody wants electricity 100 percent of the time and it’s going to take a combination of what I call tools. It’s going to take you the grid, it’s going to take you centralized as well as distributed and there are going to be special applications,” Cardinas said.

It’s going to take at least a year or two before applications are approved and feasibility studies are complete. That funding is capped at $1 million, but the project costs and any increased rates for customers are still unknown.

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