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To Prevent Long Power Outages, Communities Look to Microgrids

As severe weather becomes more common, microgrids are gaining popularity as a way to keep the power on at critical facilities during widespread blackouts.

A giant October snowstorm three years ago knocked out power to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., for the first time that anyone could remember. Wesleyan officials hope it will also be the last time. The college of 3,200 students, with help from the state, recently installed a "microgrid," which will allow it to keep the lights on at its facilities even if the surrounding community loses power.

Wesleyan can insulate itself from widespread power outages by generating its own power and making sure it can distribute that electricity to the 312 buildings on campus without depending on the outside grid. As an oasis of electricity, the college can now better serve its students and act as a staging area to coordinate disaster response for Middletown.

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It is a concept that is gaining popularity across the country, especially in the storm-savaged Northeast, as communities try to improve their resilience. Officials in Massachusetts, Maryland and New York have also launched initiatives to support the creation of microgrids. Connecticut paid $694,000 of the $3.5 million cost to establish Wesleyan's microgrid, but it is the first of many the state is supporting. "When we talk about microgrids, it's a wicked hot topic. It's going to be in the dictionary next year as a new word, like 'Twitter,'" said Alan Rubacha, director of Wesleyan University's physical plant. "But it's existed for a long time."

In fact, microgrids go back to the dawn of the Electric Age in the 1880s, when Thomas Edison was working on what was essentially a microgrid, a self-contained system for generating and distributing power. Until now, they were most commonly used on some college campuses and military installations.

But as severe weather is becoming more common, the shortcomings of a large grid system are becoming more apparent. "When you have a major snowstorm, the branches fall on the above-ground power lines and the whole thing breaks down. When you have flooding, you have problems. When you have wind, you have problems," said Niek Veraart, a consultant with Louis Berger who worked with communities after Superstorm Sandy.

Burying power lines can help prevent outages, but it is extremely expensive, Veraart said. It can cost up to $4 million a mile to place electric lines underground.

But microgrids, he said, can minimize the impact of blackouts by connecting key facilities such as hospitals, police stations, emergency shelters, gas stations and communications centers to reliable sources of power. That is why Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy pushed for a microgrid pilot program in a 2012 law that authorized $18 million to fund nine community projects.

The additional money swayed university administrators to take on a project that otherwise would be set aside for other priorities, like adding classes or adding fire protection to older buildings, Rubacha said. "It makes those projects be approved. It absolutely does."

Malloy came to Wesleyan in March to cut the ribbon and fire up the natural gas engines that provide power and heat to the Freeman Athletic Center and other campus buildings. With the new connections, the facility can be used as a shelter and staging ground for first responders in future emergencies.

While there, Malloy announced a second round of microgrid grants, worth another $15 million. "Our statewide program is a national model and others are looking to Connecticut's program as an example of how to increase resiliency and protect residents, commerce and vital services even when the power goes out," Malloy said.

Indeed, several other states have introduced their own microgrid initiatives:

  • As part of his Superstorm Sandy relief package, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo included $40 million in prize money for the creation of 10 microgrids. That is an addition to the $10 million each the state is paying Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island build microgrids.

  • Massachusetts set aside $40 million to help municipalities improve the dependability of their electric grids, and it will allow them to use that money to build microgrids.

  • A Maryland gubernatorial task force recommended earlier this year the creation of utility-owned microgrids, along with third-party systems created by local governments and private developers.

  • New Jersey has been working with the federal government to promote microgrids. The state's transit agency partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy and Sandia National Laboratories to develop a microgrid for the transit system using railroad rights-of-way. The state also directed federal disaster money to help municipalities improve their electric grids, including the establishment of microgrids.
In Connecticut, Wesleyan is asking for $1.1 million in the state's second round of grants. The school wants to use the funds to connect a residence hall, the public safety building and the school's physical plant-where Rubacha works-to the microgrid. "We will not add these structures to our microgrid anytime soon, unless we get funding from the state," Rubacha said. "We just don't have the resources to allocate to those structures right now."

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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