Why Do We Need Microgrids?

Author: Timothy Bolan, P.E.

To Provide Affordable Energy for Community Resiliency and Economic Development

Photovoltaic cells are spreading on rooftops and next to municipal plants. Wind turbines rise from the hills, blades spinning in lazy circles. These features, appearing with greater frequency on the New York State landscape, are actually sources of environmentally clean electrical power flowing into transmission lines. Alternative energy generated by wind and solar, biodigesters, fuel cells, and combined heat and power (CHP) systems all feed power into existing energy transmission systems, known as the macrogrid. Unfortunately many of these alternative energy systems are unable to detach from the macrogrid and supply electricity locally during a power outage.

The nation’s energy infrastructure is old and vulnerable to extreme weather events. Since the 1980s, power failures have tripled. According to the US Energy Department the macrogrid is in need of massive nationwide modernization. Although the US DOE has invested $4.5 billion through the Recovery Act in technology upgrades, the need remains critical.

In New York, power outages are up by 287 percent. A typical New York family spends an average of $2,500 a year in energy costs, representing some of the highest costs in the nation. In the last 10 years NY utility companies have spent $17 billion just to maintain the macrogrid.

Enter the Microgrid

Clean energy microgrids offer consistent, affordable, reliable, flexible and resilient local energy generation and delivery. Because a microgrid is localized, it can mitigate power disruptions by continuing to operate – providing electricity to its local customers – when the macrogrid is unable to serve the microgrid customers. A microgrid can either operate as an island (generator power just to it’s own customers) or as an integral partner into the macrogrid. It serves as a resource for faster system response and recovery. Microgrids add another dimension to the obvious benefits of energy generation by increasing efficiencies and reducing energy losses during transmission and distribution. The ability to produce power locally when the macrogrid is down enhances community resiliency during extreme weather events, protects the safety of the public and reduces incidents leading to economic losses and infrastructure failure.

Municipalities and other customers served by renewable energy sources (think wind, solar, digester gas, etc.) can also benefit through “net metering” -  a means of giving credit when customer’s renewable energy generation exceeds usage. Excess energy can be sold to the utility company or used to offset the Municipalities’ aggregated electrical services, thereby reducing energy costs, and increasing green power credibility.

NYSERDA's "NY Prize" Program

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR), has made up to $40 million available through the NY Prize program. The NY Prize program positions communities to establish community based microgrids. These local energy generation systems improve local electrical distribution system performance and resiliency in both a normal operating configuration and during times of electrical grid anomalies. Public utilities have identified opportunity zones across the state where they believe microgrids will have a meaningful impact in resolving energy delivery problems by reducing system constraints and increasing system resiliency. An Opportunity Zone map can be found on the NY Prize website here.

NY Prize promotes community based systems that provide power to multiple customers, including residential and commercial users, while insuring consistent operation of critical facilities such as hospitals, emergency services and essential infrastructure. With this emphasis, applicants to the program must have the endorsement of the local electric distribution company and identify at least one critical facility that will be served by a community micro-grid. Potential Study teams can consist of educational facilities, municipalities, energy project developers, property owners, technology vendors, emergency shelters, hospitals and various critical facilities.

The three-stage competition offers support for feasibility studies, audit-grade engineering design and business planning, and project build-out and post-operational monitoring. The NY Prize Selection Committee recently awarded Stage 1 funding to 83 communities for feasibility studies. (B&L assisted the Villages of Malone and Frankfort with their successful applications).

The communities receiving support for feasibility studies may choose to apply for detailed engineering support in Stage 2 of the competition. NYSERDA will also work with third parties and the State’s utilities to provide access to existing clean energy programs and services for communities that do not receive NY Prize support. In Stage 3, the final competition stage, NY Prize funding will be made available for project construction; both Stage 2 and 3 will involve a cost-share.

To discuss the potential for a microgrid in your community, contact Tim Bolan at tbolan@bartonandloguidice.com or 315-457-5200. For more detailed information about the NY Prize competition, including the map of the “opportunity zones,” please refer to the NYSERDA web site: http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/All-Programs/Programs/NY-Prize.