The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection is rolling out a $20 million microgrid program, recruiting businesses wanting to stay operating if — or when — the rest of the state goes dark.
Specifically, DEEP wants businesses such as gas stations and grocery stores to join critical load centers in downtowns. The state also encourages businesses with large campuses — such as Stratford helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. — to set up their own internal microgrids.
"We hope to launch a handful of these by the end of the year," DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty said. "The main advantage for the company is it provides some continuity and the ability to remain operating."
Microgrids became the buzzword in Connecticut following Tropical Storm Irene and the Oct. 29 snowstorm, when nearly 1 million businesses and homes lost power, some for more than a week. The state and the utilities look to microgrids as part of Connecticut's overall resiliency strategy.
A microgrid is a form of distributed generation, which is an extremely localized power source providing power to either one ratepayer or a small number of ratepayers. Occasionally, distributed generation will feed electricity back onto the main power grid. Solar panels placed on rooftops or businesses with generators are examples of distributed generation.
The microgrid takes distributed generation one step further by operating independent of the main grid. Microgrids take power off the main grid and feed back onto it as well, but in times of an emergency, the microgrid can become an island unto itself. In addition to having the right tie-in technology to sever the connection with the main grid, a microgrid needs load management software to make sure the onsite generators meet the system's power demands.
"You are bringing the whole electricity supply chain inside your fence," said Chris Lotspeich, director of Sustainability Services for Glastonbury consultant Celtic Energy. "This is one trend for the future, whether we become a nation of microgrids or not."
Celtic Energy helped set up a microgrid for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Silver Springs, Md. The system kept the FDA campus operational during the early July power outage in the Washington, D.C. area. That was critical for the agency because many of its experiments would have been lost without power, Lotspeich said.
"It is a huge opportunity for cities and towns and businesses where they don't have to lose products or productivity," said Chris Halpin, president of Celtic Energy. "That's a huge opportunity cost."
Relying on the main power grid is the cheaper upfront option, Halpin said, but that reliance is pennywise and pound foolish. During an outage from the grid, businesses lose a significant amount of money, particularly those relying on a steady amount of productivity.
"If you consider what you do is critical, you better consider something like this," Halpin said.
Microgrids differ from emergency generators because their power sources continually operate, providing electricity within the microgrid in conjunction with the main grid. The best generation sources for microgrids are capable of responding to changing power demands, such as natural gas turbines or fuel cells. Solar panels and wind turbines can work, but they need a type of energy storage to respond to changing electricity demands.
The Connecticut General Assembly created a microgrid pilot program in June, providing DEEP with $20 million to test the idea with a handful of towns. The municipalities will be selected by the end of the year, and the microgrids will be operating by mid-2013.
Esty said the focus will be protecting critical operations such as hospitals, prisons, sewage treatment plants and first responder locations, such as fire stations, police departments and emergency operation centers. While the state aims to create microgrids in areas surrounding these types of facilities, DEEP wants to tie in nearby businesses as well to keep important services available to residents during an outage, such as gasoline and grocery.
"We can keep a core set of businesses up and running during an outage," Esty said. "When the power goes out, you can trip your system and island yourself off the grid."
Since these microgrids are essentially operating as mini-municipal utilities, DEEP still must figure out how they will be governed and structured. Esty said the cost associated with establishing the microgrid will be borne by all ratepayers, although businesses tied into the system will have to pay a premium for the benefit.
"Everybody benefits from the presence of power nearby," Esty said.
Berlin electric utilities Connecticut Light & Power — the state's largest power distributor, which faced heavy criticism following the 2011 outages — looks to microgrids as one of three ways to increase resiliency of the system. The other two are undergrounding power lines and simple back-up generation.
CL&P is working with the University of Connecticut schools of business and engineering to evaluate how the three options stack up against each other and which fits for each situation
Microgrids provide reliability during a potential outage, but they require more administration compared to other options, said Dana Louth, CL&P vice president for infrastructure hardening. Microgrids reduce the amount of power that CL&P delivers.
"It becomes like operating a small power company," Louth said.
DEEP is approaching certain Connecticut businesses and agencies to set up their own microgrids. Businesses such as Sikorsky or organizations such as Yale University that already have distributed generation are good candidates, Esty said. They need to make sure they can generate power continuously; and provide enough power for all its systems should be microgrid island itself from the main grid or have the ability to shut down non-critical operations so the entire campus can run off the onsite power.
Connecticut already has a handful of microgrids set up at businesses that operate numerous servers for computer systems, but the state would benefit greatly from having more areas where power remains on independent of the grid, Esty said.
Microgrids are much like diversifying a stock portfolio, said Paul Popinchalk, director of engineering at Celtic Energy. Rather than having a few large power plants, microgrids are several small power plants decreasing the reliance on one big system.
"It is one thousand points of light vs. one point," Popinchalk said.
Connecticut has a difficult time approving new power plants, as there tends to be neighborhood resistance. With microgrids, the power generator needed is smaller, and approval is easier, Popinchalk said.
Microgrids are more environmentally friendly than big power grids, Popinchalk said. Microgrid generation comes from cleaner sources such as fuel cells and gas turbines. Since the power users are localized to the source, electricity doesn't travel as far and less power is lost in transmission and distribution.