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Microgids and distributed generation are among the advances states rely on when superstorms and other weather disasters strike.

By Dan Shea

When Superstorm Sandy knocked out power  to nearly 8 million people across 15 Eastern states, many expected it would be out for quite a while. It took two full days to light up Manhattan’s skyscrapers and reopen the New York Stock Exchange. For many others, it took nearly two weeks.

Princeton University, however, was able to restore power in just 20 minutes because of its microgrid, which generates its own electricity and can run independently of the grid.

“The grid will fail. It’s just the nature of things,” says Ted Borer, Princeton’s energy plant manager. “It’s more a question of when is it going to break, and how well are we going to be prepared for that.”

Microgrids are just one example of how state legislators are seeking to make the electrical grid more reliable and resilient through strategies that strengthen infrastructure and shorten the time it takes to restore power.

The whole idea is to minimize the damage and disruption of a disaster. To make a superstorm feel more like a thunderstorm.

Economies of Hail

Superstorm Sandy was only a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in 2012. But, because of its sheer size, it caused $70 billion in damages. Only Hurricane Katrina has been costlier, at $108 billion. The economic toll from disasters is so heavy in part because power outages disrupt commerce and are expensive to restore.

Terms Defined
  • Electric grid: The network of interconnected electrical infrastructure used to transmit, distribute and deliver electricity across the nation.
  • Microgrid: A system of energy generating resources and infrastructure that can distribute electricity in conjunction with the electric grid or independently from it during power outages.
  • Smart grid: Communications and control technologies being used to increase the efficiency, reliability and performance of the electric grid.
  • Cogeneration: A process, also known as combined heat and power (CHP), that captures waste heat from electricity generation and uses it to provide heating and cooling.
  • Demand response: Utilities reward electricity consumers for reducing their electricity use at times of peak demand.
  • Distributed generation: Onsite power generation, including cogeneration, solar, wind and other sources.

Data from the U.S. Department of Energy show that weather-related blackouts in the U.S. doubled between 2003 and 2012, at an average annual cost of $18 billion to $33 billion. The National Hurricane Center reveals that, after adjusting for inflation, 12 of the 30 most damaging hurricanes since 1900 have hit in the last 15 years.

“We had Irene. We had Sandy. We had a snowstorm that went on forever. We had people in the dark, substations threatened by flooding and power out for eight, 10, 12 days,” says Connecticut Representative Lonnie Reed (D). “We began to see just how vulnerable the whole interconnected system is.”

It may be impossible to completely neutralize the damage wrought by nature, but lawmakers in several states are trying to soften the impact. States along the Atlantic seaboard, hit hard by a series of destructive storms in recent years, are working to reinforce and protect their critical infrastructure.

New Jersey legislators have introduced more than two dozen bills in 2016 to address disaster preparedness. Many are carryovers from the previous session, in which only three became law and two others were vetoed. The various bills include proposals to move electric distribution lines underground, require utilities to file emergency response and flood mitigation plans, and facilitate  municipal investments in flood and hurricane resistance projects.

Similar efforts are underway across the country. A newly enacted law in New York requires residential health care facilities to undergo energy and disaster preparedness reviews. A bill pending in Oregon would require local governments to plan for tsunami resilience.

Other state legislators have proposed bills to direct state agencies to assess the grid’s vulnerabilities and create comprehensive plans to strengthen electric systems. But it can be hard to put a price on damage that is prevented, making plans with high up-front costs like infrastructure upgrades and onsite power generation, hard to justify. Legislation requiring comprehensive planning was introduced in six states last year but passed in only New York and Puerto Rico.

A growing number of businesses and organizations, however, are investing in resilient systems that allow them to operate independently whether the grid is up or down.

“You’re really talking about having an economic leg up if you have the capacity to stay open and operational when others aren’t,” says Reed.

Energizing People

While a case for building resilience can be made with dollars and cents, this is still a very human issue. People live these events. Families must stay warm, deal with thawing food, function without flushing toilets and make do as the availability of motor fuel dwindles. They also may lose their homes, businesses and sense of security. And the threat is growing. A flurry of recent studies predicts an increasing number of even more severe storms with worsening floods in the coming decades.

The issue is particularly acute along the Atlantic seaboard, where the U.S. Geological Survey has found sea levels rising at rates three times the global average. Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population—more than 123 million people—live in coastal shoreline counties, with power plants, substations and other energy infrastructure nearby. Several notable reports have revealed considerable flood risk to  energy infrastructure from Norfolk, Virginia, to Mobile, Alabama.

Storms like Sandy have highlighted the potential benefits of microgrids—specifically, highly efficient energy plants powered by natural gas that produce electricity and thermal energy simultaneously, a technology known as cogeneration. During Sandy, in sharp contrast to some of the surrounding neighborhoods, New York University’s cogeneration plant maintained power to key parts of its campus, while a cogeneration microgrid at a Bronx housing community known as “Co-op City” provided heat, electricity and hot water for 60,000 residents.

Laws of Empowerment

The utility of microgrids has not been lost on state legislators. In 2015, lawmakers in 17 states introduced more than two dozen bills on microgrids, six of which have been enacted. Several pending bills direct state agencies to study microgrids, while at least six states are considering legislation that would offer grants, loans or other incentives to develop them.

While coastal states have been most active on these issues, lawmakers from Illinois and Minnesota, states that often deal with severe winter storms, have introduced legislation that includes some aspect of microgrids. Minnesota enacted legislation calling for substantial investments to modernize the grid, including microgrids.

New York has funded microgrid feasibility studies for more than 80 communities. Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey have instituted microgrids for municipalities, critical infrastructure, public shelters and water treatment facilities.

“We see microgrids as a critical component of making the grid more resilient, but also more operational with these very interconnected systems,” says Reed. “We’re now seeing a need to help fund generation. We see not only an appetite for it, but a need for it.” She says the ability to segregate key segments or areas “benefits the whole system.”

A Holistic Approach

These conversations aren’t limited to statehouses. The military and businesses are making significant investments in distributed generation, which includes cogeneration, and behind-the-meter resources in order to reduce their dependence on the grid. Kansas Representative Tom Sloan (R) has helped facilitate discussions among the National Guard, local businesses and utilities to figure out how everyone can benefit from these technologies.

 Distributed generators—particularly larger generators—should be able to benefit from the advantages these technologies offer the grid, says Sloan. “Using diesel generators to anchor microgrids during storm outages should be a value to the utility and reflected in rates or cash payments” to generators. Utilities also need to be valued for the benefits they bring to the table, he says.

The Northeast is home to most of the nation’s microgrids, though there are a growing number of systems throughout the West. They use a variety of resources and vary drastically in scope and scale.

For instance, a rural California microgrid in Borrego Springs, a community of fewer than 4,000 people, relies on two small diesel generators, a number of energy storage units and rooftop solar. Meanwhile, the University of California at San Diego microgrid incorporates a sizable cogeneration system along with solar, fuel-cell and energy storage technologies to serve a campus with a daily population of about 45,000. Understandably, the cost of the systems can vary drastically.

In recent years, there has been a trend toward developing microgrids that contribute not only during emergencies, but also when the grid is online, says Julieta Giraldez, a microgrid engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

A Miwuk Indian-owned microgrid in California, for example, provides backup and supplemental power to the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort. During the Butte wildfire in 2015, the microgrid provided electricity for 10 days, and the resort was a refuge for hundreds of evacuees. But the microgrid also allows the casino to operate offline or reduce its load during periods of peak use, which helps the local utility when it is overstressed.

“How can we change the energy resiliency plan to a more holistic approach?” Giraldez asks. “Instead of planning just for an emergency, can we also provide resources that are going to contribute year-round?”

Take a Load Off

Daily electricity demand moves in peaks and valleys, much like road traffic. Demand response—which rewards customers who reduce their use when the grid is burdened—is another tool for increasing electric reliability. In essence, it rewards the people who stay off the road during rush hour.

Lawmakers in six states introduced at least 19 bills in 2015 on demand response—noting its ability to increase system efficiency and reliability—as well as more than two dozen bills on distributed generation, smart-grid technologies and energy storage. Of these, eight bills passed.

The idea is that these technologies allow the grid to be more responsive and reliable, while also providing support in the event the grid is overburdened.

“All these resiliency tools smooth out those humps and make the electric system more efficient,” says Washington Representative Jeff Morris (D), noting that energy storage, cogeneration and renewables can often complement one another and the grid. “We can capture those symbiotic relationships better and stop building for rush hour.”

Several major blackouts have resulted from overburdened power plants that shut down one after another, like falling dominoes. The Northeast blackout of 2003, for example, affected more than 50 million people in eight states and Ontario—some of whom were without power for nearly two days. According to some reports, the blackout contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost some $6 billion.

Energy storage technologies, which essentially act like batteries, have drawn a great deal of attention for their potential to take weight off a utility’s shoulders.

In Oregon, a new law directs electric companies to procure energy storage systems, while Connecticut has passed a law requiring the state to look at “passive demand response options,” which include energy storage. At the moment, these systems are still in their infancy and are fairly expensive, though the costs are expected to fall in the coming years.

Another unique angle being explored in California, Massachusetts and Minnesota is the role electric vehicles could play as backup and supplementary power sources. Vehicle-to-grid technologies allow plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles to draw electricity from the grid during times of low demand, and supply electricity back to the grid when required.

A Unifying Power

The electric grid is truly evolving as changing technologies present unique solutions along with new dilemmas. The security and reliability of electricity is on the minds of policymakers from both sides of the aisle, as demonstrated by a bipartisan group of governors from 17 states who signed a pledge to tackle many of these pressing energy issues.

Legislators from both parties are working toward that same goal, seeking innovative solutions to ensure a secure energy future. They understand that because all systems are imperfect, there should be a plan to deal with potential failures.

“The more connected you are, the more efficient the grid will be. But it will also be more susceptible to larger cascading failures,” says Morris. “It’s important to be able to prop up your sector of the grid if and when that happens."

Dan Shea is a research analyst in NCSL’s Energy Program.

Sidebar: Microgrids + Cogeneration = Macro-Resiliency

A downed utility pole or a flooded substation may halt the flow of electricity to certain areas, but neither would stop the delivery of natural gas. That’s because natural gas infrastructure is built in a way that is inherently resilient—underground in durable pipelines—while electric infrastructure is often exposed.

Organizations and policymakers can capitalize on this, experts say.

Following Superstorm Sandy, three microgrids received significant attention. All were powered by natural gas-fired cogeneration plants that continued to generate electricity because of the reliability of natural gas infrastructure. One of those was at Princeton University.

“This is not a new concept,” says Ted Borer, Princeton University’s energy plant manager.

In fact, cogeneration microgrids were the original building blocks of electricity production and distribution, dating to Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan in 1882. By the 1890s, Princeton was operating its own cogeneration microgrid. Because they generate electricity onsite, these systems can capitalize on the thermal energy produced from burning fossil fuels for heating and cooling in nearby buildings.

Princeton returned to cogeneration in 1996. “We put it in to save money,” Borer says. “The project was not justified as emergency backup to the campus, but that was a bonus.”

These systems—also referred to as combined heat and power, or CHP—can reach efficiencies of up to 80 percent, offering the potential to burn less fuel and save money. There are currently 83 gigawatts of cogeneration deployed at more than 4,300 sites in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Natural gas is used to fuel about 70 percent of them.

To be clear, not all microgrids can be justified on a balance sheet. In some cases, the resiliency benefits of a microgrid may come with an added financial burden. Similarly, pipelines are more susceptible to damage from earthquakes and may not offer the same resiliency benefits in areas with high seismic activity.

“There’s always the question of how to determine the value streams,” says Julieta Giraldez, a microgrid engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “I think that’s a key driver in a lot of projects that we’ve seen and one of the reasons microgrids haven’t been deployed at the rate that was expected.”

Despite large upfront costs, cogeneration can be cost effective, especially if there is a high population density or a steady need for heating and cooling. Good candidates include military bases, universities, hospitals, airports, data centers and large residential communities.

Washington Representative Jeff Morris (D) sponsored a cogeneration bill enacted in 2015 that requires a lifecycle cost analysis of critical government facilities before construction or renovation in order to determine the potential for cogeneration systems.

“Our impetus was twofold, and one was resiliency,” Morris says, adding that the other was to reduce carbon emissions.


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