Micro Machines

Written by Jon Lentz on . Posted in Energy, Environment.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, large sections of New York City lost power.
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

On the night that Hurricane Sandy was closing in on New York City, John Bradley was in his office on the phone with the city’s utility company, Con Edison. Bradley, NYU’s associate vice president of sustainability, energy and technical services, wanted to know which university properties would be affected as the utility was pre-emptively shutting down parts of the grid.

“Then all the lights went out in my office, and as I looked out my window, all the lights were out in the city,” recounted Bradley, who was on NYU’s main campus looking toward the East River. “So I said, ‘Did something happen?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know what.’ They hung up, and I didn’t hear from them for a few days.”

Leaving his office, Bradley dashed over to the small power plant on campus, which had detected a drop in power and had automatically shut down. He re-started the two gas turbines of the university’s 13.4-megawatt combined heat and power plant, which provides power to 26 key NYU buildings and facilities.

“The breakers opened up, the engines bumped a little bit, like revving your car a little bit, and they settled out and kept running, and we were now isolated from the Con Ed grid and running on our own,” Bradley said. “We ran that way for the next six days.”

The performance of NYU’s self-contained generating plant and transmission grid—or microgrid—stood out as one of the bright spots during the devastation wrought by the storm. It is now being looked at as a model for future projects aimed at improving the resiliency and reliability of the power supply.

“NYU was a beacon of light in lower New York because they were self-sufficient,” Michael Delaney, a top energy policy adviser in the Bloomberg administration, said at City & State’s recent “On Energy” conference. “There are proposals on microgrids, and famously, during Sandy, NYU was the leading example.”

Of course, microgrids won’t solve all of the challenges facing the electric grid in and around New York City. It will takes months or years of study before new microgrid projects move forward, probably starting with pilot projects. There are complex questions about costs, standards and integration with the larger electrical grid. And regulations covering who can build a grid and connect with others pose another challenge.

“Con Ed rightly points out that it has the franchise for New York City and for Westchester, so there are limitations on how much of a microgrid you can develop without impinging on a franchise,” Delaney said. “But what we’ve tried to do in the city is to work cooperatively with Con Ed to identify certain locations where there’s enough critical mass of power and enough thermal load—for example, a hospital that’s close to a NYCHA building—and in that way make it a model for CHP placement, but I think it’s going to be a long process.”

Bradley said that NYU’s plant, which was repowered in 2010, provides many benefits to the university. Annual energy costs are down by $5 million to $6 million a year, emissions are reduced and excess power can be sold to Con Edison. But NYU had an advantage other potential microgrid developers do not—its system does not go beyond the boundaries of the campus. Con Ed’s franchise prevents a local power generator from connecting directly with another entity, which can be a roadblock.

“We didn’t have those issues, and it really made developing our microgrid a lot easier than somebody, a developer or a building owner, to say, ‘Hey, it makes sense for us to place a generating plant in one of the buildings and feed three or four buildings in a microgrid,’ ” Bradley said. “I think they’re working on resolving it, but it’s really how quickly can you do it.”

Con Edison is actively exploring the development of microgrids, said Robert Schimmenti, the utility’s vice president of engineering and planning. The series of severe storms in recent years has spurred the company to look at partnering with developers that have or want to develop power generation facilities in small areas where it is critical to keep the lights on. For example, a microgrid could be built in Westchester County, also part of Con Ed’s service area, ensuring that a firehouse, police station and perhaps a shopping center stay open.

“So if infrastructure around it is down from the devastating tree damage from the high winds, you have this center, this particular area within a town that remains energized just to support the community until their power gets restored,” he said.

Microgrids could also ease demand and allow the company to delay costly and complicated upgrades to the grid, Schimmenti added, which could save money for all of the utility’s customers.

“There’s a huge amount of interest in getting folks to be somewhat self-reliant,” he said. “Not completely—you won’t see folks separating from the grid, because I think the grid is so reliable and there are other risks of that. But if you had a high-rise building that had 5 megawatts of power and they wanted to put in 1 megawatt of distributed generation, that is a sizeable load that they can take off their energy usage and have that available for catastrophic conditions.”

Others are taking a closer look at microgrids as well. In New Jersey, NJ Transit is partnering with the federal Department of Energy to build a microgrid supporting part of its transit system. Connecticut launched its own microgrid program this summer. And the idea has been raised at the city and state level in New York, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has researched microgrids.

“I am a firm believer in distributed generation and microgrids,” Bradley said. “I think that with the smart grid coming and with two-way communications, building a large central generating plant and all the infrastructure to send that power miles just doesn’t make sense any more. It’s really these small, local plants, in combination with high-tech building management controls, and solar and wind. You’re going to control all these pockets of the city much more efficiently than you’re going to do the old way of a central power plant. That’s the whole key.”

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