Science Policy Friday: Microgrids Small in Size, Big on Efficiency and Resiliency

SciPoliFri_Box.gifThis week’s column is on a new novel piece of legislation that encourages municipalities to consider establishing microgrids that can continue to provide power to key facilities during outages, one of their many benefits to our energy infrastructure.  A big thank you to our new science and environment intern Tiffany Zhao for research and drafting this article. Cross-posted at 

Whether we are charging cellphones or heating homes, society depends on energy in almost every aspect of our lives. The United States ranks second in the world in energy consumption, and as energy usage grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to ensure that our energy usage is sustainable, efficient, and secure.

By incorporating “microgrids”, New Jersey is seeking to be a leader in paving the way for the United States’ energy future. Microgrids are localized electrical grids. Just like larger electrical grids (macrogrids), microgrids can deliver electricity from power plants to consumers, except microgrids cover smaller regions. However, microgrids differ from traditional electrical grids, because they can also produce and store their own energy combined with using resources like solar panels or steam turbines.

Because microgrids can both produce and deliver energy, they can operate independently of the electrical grid. Although some microgrids, like many in Alaska, operate completely independently like islands, most microgrids in the Northeast are normally connected with the electrical grid but have the ability to disconnect from the grid during an outage or disruption.

A new bill (A2756 / S881), sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Eustace and Assemblyman Daniel Benson, seeks to extend the success of microgrids beyond Princeton University throughout New Jersey. The bill would allow municipalities to apply to establish a three-year microgrid pilot program. The program focuses  on enabling public and private facilities that have been declared as critical to maintain normal operation during disasters and emergencies like Superstorm Sandy. By participating in the microgrid pilot program, municipalities will be able to become more prepared for emergencies and contribute to a more sustainable energy future.

In addition, by serving a local area, microgrids promote a more efficient grid. Microgrids reduce energy loss in distribution and transmission, which can account for up to 6% of electricity generated. In addition, microgrids that have a “give-and-take” relationship with utility companies can use the electrical grid’s power when necessary or sell excess electricity back to the grid.

The use of microgrids also provides local areas with more flexibility to make decisions about energy.  For example, this independence makes microgrids an excellent resource for municipalities to pilot renewable energy technologies combined with energy storage technologies on a smaller scale. During outages and severe storms, microgrids provide grid resiliency. The US Department of Energy reports that power outages cost the US economy between $18 and $33 billion annually. However, microgrids can disconnect from the electrical grid and seamlessly continue operation.

The operation of Princeton University’s microgrid during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 is a prime example of the advantages that microgrids can offer. The electricity from the University’s microgrid is derived from a nearby solar panel field and a gas turbine on campus that can produce enough heat and electricity for 12,000 people. Normally, the University stays connected to the Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) grid, buying power when prices are low and generating its own power when prices are high.

However, during Hurricane Sandy, Princeton started its gas turbine and disconnected from the grid, enabling the college to continue normal operation. For universities like Princeton, a microgrid also ensures that equipment can still run and research experiments will not be interrupted during outages. Edward Borer, the energy plant manager at the university, said, “We can run the campus as an electric island in times of crisis.”

Overall, the university lost power for approximately 20 minutes. When the university regained power, emergency-services workers could utilize the electricity to charge equipment on campus, and local residents were even able to use the wireless Internet at Princeton. After operating its microgrid independently for three days, Princeton reconnected with the main PSE&G grid.

Other states have already started to successfully integrate microgrids into their energy infrastructure. Last year, the Connecticut town Fairfield unveiled a new microgrid program, consisting of emergency generators and rooftop solar systems. With this program, emergency response teams, government services, and some businesses will have power during natural disasters. The Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham (JBPHH) for the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 154th Wing has also been chosen for a new $6.8 million waste-to-energy microgrid system. The project will not only reduce energy production and storage costs by converting 10 tons of waste to electricity every day, but it will also protect the base during outages and potential cyber-attacks.

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