A pilot program announced by Connecticut’s state government will demonstrate a cluster of microgrid technologies that could help communities, businesses, and institutions keep the lights on during extreme weather events. Projects like these could advance the markets for related technologies such as renewable power generation, combined heat and power systems (CHP), small-scale diesel and natural gas generators, fuel cells, storage, and smart grid systems.
State officials in Connecticut announced in July that the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has awarded $18 million to nine microgrid demonstration projects. In unveiling the program, Governor Dan Malloy, quoted in a DEEP announcement, said that microgrids “play a major role in our efforts to modernize and harden our infrastructure to withstand severe weather” and that the funded projects “will help protect residents and vital public services even when the power goes out, and in doing so allow us to provide critical services during times of emergency.” Malloy also said he is recommending that another $30 million be invested in the state’s microgrid program over the next two years.
Seeking Resilience During Extreme Weather
Alex Kragie, special assistant to DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty, told me in an interview that Connecticut’s motivation for investing in microgrids comes down to the impact of extreme weather. “Over the past two or two-and-a-half years, the state has been absolutely hammered with severe weather events leading to power outages,” he said. “For people in Connecticut, it impacts both their safety and quality of life if they can’t do the things they depend on in everyday life that require power.” The microgrid represents a promising avenue for achieving greater reliability and resilience for electrical distribution.
Navigant Research defines a microgrid as “integrated energy system network consisting of distributed energy resources (DER) and multiple electrical loads and/or meters operating as a single, autonomous grid.” A microgrid can function “either in parallel to or ‘islanded’ from the existing utility power grid.”
Peter Asmus, an energy expert who researches energy for Navigant, told me in an e-mail that microgrids offer a possible solution for providing greater resilience for electric power during and after extreme weather events such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Asmus said, “In theory, microgrids would never lose power (if they work properly).”
Some microgrid experiences during Sandy support Asmus’s claim:
Co-op City, a 330-acre housing development in the Bronx in New York, disconnected from the larger grid and ran on its microgrid, powered by a cogeneration plant. Its 35 high-rise buildings with 14,000 apartments had power throughout the storm and after, along with three shopping centers and six schools.
Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., was able keep its microgrid going powered by its cogeneration plant. New York University in New York City had a similar experience.
The Edison Electric Institute estimates that Sandy affected 20 U.S. states, cost $50 billion, and caused power outages for 10 million utility customers.
An Expanding Market for Cleantech Manufacturers
Asmus believes that North America represents the largest market for microgrid services today, “ largely due to the relatively poor reliability of the incumbent utility power grid,” he said. However, over the long term, he actually said Asia and the developing world will represent the most important market. He cited the analogy of cell-phone adoption in developing markets: “Just as the developing world skipped land lines — the equivalent of today’s radial, centralized transmission grid — it may just jump to distributed microgrid networks instead.” In such countries, remote microgrids might be able to function as “the anchors of new, appropriate-scale infrastructure.”
Navigant projects that the global revenue from microgrid deployment will grow from about $8.3 billion this year to more than $40 billion in 2020. North America currently holds 63 percent of world microgrid capacity at 992 MW. Asia Pacific follows with 17 percent and Europe with 14 percent.
Market research firm Frost & Sullivan identifies energy management and control systems as the central technologies of the microgrid. These systems have to dispatch and control the various sources of distributed generation that could make up a microgrid, such as solar arrays, wind turbines, diesel or gas generators, and energy storage units. An switch sits at the interface between the microgrid and the public grid and is used to “island” the microgrid when necessary.
Frost & Sullivan estimates the North American microgrid market at $972 million in 2012. This figure includes the market for key categories of technologies that include “distributed generation, switches, inverters, energy storage, uninterruptible power supply, controls, and energy management systems.” Controls and energy management systems represent the highest value in the total market, at $548.4 million. Distributed generation is next at $351.7 million.
DEEP’s Alex Kragie told me that the microgrid model offers some promising market opportunities for manufacturers. “Microgrids are very well positioned toward cleaner energy sources going forward, although for now they will have to have some kind of baseload generation.” In most of the Connecticut pilot projects, baseload generation will be supplied principally by diesel and natural gas generators, with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems supplementing some of them. “As we move further down the microgrid path, we’re going to see the majority of sources in renewables with the help of energy storage technologies,” he said.
Connecticut is home to some important fuel-cell manufacturers, Kragie stressed, and the microgrid space is “very promising for the fuel cell industry.” Fuel cells are incorporated into some of the Connecticut projects as a means to store energy and provide baseline power.
DEEP’s microgrid pilot program was created under Connecticut’s 2012 Public Act 12-148, centered on emergency preparedness and response. The pilot program focuses on providing power for essential public services and businesses in the event of extreme weather events affecting the conventional power grid. The nine projects slated for funding are:
Bridgeport — $2.97 million for three natural gas microturbines for the city hall, police station, and senior center.
Fairfield — $1.16 million for two natural gas reciprocating engines and a 47 kW PV solar system for the town’s police station, emergency operations center, cell tower, fire headquarters, and public shelter.
Groton — $3 million for a 5 MW cogeneration turbine and a diesel generator for the Naval Submarine Base (funded through the State Department of Economic and Community Development rather than DEEP).
Hartford — $2.27 million for diesel generators for the University of Hartford campus and St. Francis Hospital; and $2.06 million for a natural gas turbine for a school, senior center, library, supermarket, and gas station.
Middletown — $694,000 for natural gas combined heat and power (CHP) systems for Wesleyan University.
Storrs — $2.14 million for a 400 kW fuel cell and 6.6 kW PV solar system for the University of Connecticut.
Windham — $639,950 for natural gas generators, 250 kW solar, a 200 kWh battery and 2 kW diesel generator for two schools.
Woodbridge — $3 million for a 1.6 MW natural gas turbine and 400 kW fuel cell for police and fire stations, public works department, town hall, and high school.
Bridgeport’s mayor, Bill Finch, quoted in the DEEP announcement, said his city’s microgrid project “will work to prevent critical infrastructure … from going offline during major weather events, which as a result of climate change, are occurring more frequently.” Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra said his city’s microgrid project is “the first of what we hope will be an ever-expanding alternative energy source in Hartford.”