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In Wake of Sandy, Connecticut Expands Microgrid Program

Alex Lauderbaugh — March 12, 2013

In late October of last year, as Tropical Cyclone Sandy tore through the northeastern United States, more than 8.5 million people lost power at some point during the storm.  Microgrids kept the lights on in parts of New York, New Jersey, and other locations in New England.

The Connecticut Microgrid Grant and Loan Pilot Program was first proposed in July 2012 and administered by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Bureau of Energy and Technology.  While the program was initially suggested as a response to Tropical Storm Irene, the project gained momentum after Sandy, and will culminate with state funding for a number of microgrids.  Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s recent budget proposal increased funding for the program by $30 million, in addition to the $15 million already slated.

The first selection round was completed in late February, and of the initial 36 proposals, 27 have been vetted as technically feasible; 8 of those 27 were approved pending the correction of design issues.  These projects include police stations, hospitals, and other critical loads that need to be protected from power failures during emergencies.  Wanting to learn as much as possible about the potential risks and benefits of various microgrid configurations, DEEP encouraged novel technologies and imposed no size constraints on the microgrid projects.

Fossil Fuel Limits

In an interview, Veronica Szczerkowski of DEEP said that the program includes a number of requirements and nuances that set a higher standard for compatibility with utility operations from previous deployments of privately owned microgrids.  First, state funding is limited to the design, engineering, and utility interconnection costs of each project, and will not fund customer-owned generation or energy storage assets, the latter of which come with the largest price tags among microgrid enabling technologies.  Since there may be split ownership of grid infrastructure with this new fleet of microgrids, state funds will flow to microgrid asset owners and developers as well as to utilities.  Second, utilities will be required to own and maintain all non-private distribution grid assets interconnecting with customer-owned microgrids.

Perhaps the most novel aspect to the DEEP microgrid program is that all microgrids supported by state funding must have sufficient fuel onsite to run the microgrid for 2 weeks and have access to fuel for a total of 4 weeks.  This prerequisite constrains microgrids based on fossil fuels.  One of the projects that moved into the second round is a hospital with 5 MW of diesel generators.  A rough calculation means that the hospital would have to have more than 85,000 gallons of diesel onsite to run at an average of 3/4 load for the required 2 weeks.  While from an energy surety standpoint, such a condition makes sense, especially for critical loads, even if such storage requirements are unwieldy.

Given these fuel requirements, the DEEP microgrid program encourages various clean technologies.  In addition to solar and wind energy sources, fuel cell deployment is also emphasized since Connecticut is home to a number of fuel cell manufacturers, including FuelCell Energy, Proton Power, and the recently acquired company UTC Power (which will be sold under the ClearEdge name).  In fact, 10 of the 27 projects include fuel cells in their proposals, accounting for about 28% of the total capacity.

Even though there are a number of unknowns in the Connecticut program, one thing is clear: the project will be a testing ground for how to implement microgrids on a wide scale, and the outcomes will undoubtedly inform future publicly funded programs.

Peter Asmus contributed reporting to this blog.

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