Backing up the power grid with homemade electricity

Jun 19, 2015

Economies of scale. We talk about it all the time, making lots of something to bring the costs down. It works with electricity, as large power plants far away affordably generate most of our energy. The thing is, the delivery system, the plumbing of electricity – i.e., the grid – is becoming less reliable. In Connecticut, failures affecting up 850,000 customers from three major storms in 2011 and 2012 have the state investing in a new type of redundancy: locally made power. 

“We realized how centralized we are,” state lawmaker Lonnie Reed says. “And more centralization means more vulnerability.”

It’s really two vulnerabilities. A less reliable grid and our addiction to it. One of Reed’s constituents called up during the storm, demanding the National Guard.

“And I said ‘well, is your house still standing?’ ” Reed says. “ 'Oh yes.’ ‘Do you have water?’ ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘My children can’t go to school and there is no TV! And they depend on video games and Wii.’ He was having a Wii meltdown.”

After the storms, Connecticut enacted a law that’s the first of its kind in the country. It invests in what are call microgrids.

“It became clear that there was an opportunity,” Yale law professor Dan Esty says. He was state energy and environment commissioner at the time. “While not protecting against the grid going out, of having some microgrids that would stay up.”

A microgrid is what it sounds like: a hyper-local source of energy — it could be a natural gas plant, solar panels, a wind farm or fuel cell – that makes electricity independent of the main grid. Think community garden, in case shipped food can’t make it in. It’s a form of decentralized or “distributed” generation.

Danbury Hospital in western Connecticut put in its own system four years ago. At the heart of it is an on-site natural gas plant that kept the lights on during Superstorm Sandy.

“We decided to go island mode,”  says Morris Gross, hospital facilities vice president. “And island mode basically meant that we split away from the power company during the worst of that storm.” 

Much of the region went dark then, including New York University’s Medical Center in Manhattan.

“So they had to evacuate their patients,” Gross says. “These patients had to be carried downstairs. You know, elevators don’t work. You can imagine, if you have to worry about people on respirators.”

Danbury Hospital’s microgrid makes local power as well as local heat. The system captures the power generator’s waste heat, which normally goes up the smokestack, and turns it into steam.

“We take the steam, we heat buildings with it,” Gross says. “We take the steam, we create hot water with it. We take the steam, we sterilize instruments with it. And then we take the steam and we convert it to air conditioning through heat-absorption chiller."

Danbury Hospital saved so much on heating and air conditioning, it paid for its $17 million microgrid in four years.

It’s the same story an hour east, at Wesleyan University’s microgrid.

The school, like a hospital, can’t afford to go dark. The science lab, for instance, has strict temperature controls. “We save about $5,000 per day operating these machines,” says Alan Rubacha, director of physical plant and capital projects at the university.

“Certainly at stake there is science,” Rubacha says, “the business of the university and the students. We’ve got minus 80 freezers and minus 20 freezers with things in them that are irreplaceable.”

Keeping a college building or hospital up is one of several reasons to make power locally. It can save money in places where grid power’s expensive. It can generate clean energy in the form of rooftop solar panels. It can hedge against terror attacks on the physical grid, which is why the military has built microgrids.

 “There are so many reasons to have a structure of distributed generation,” Yale Law’s Dan Esty said. “That is going to happen with or without a strategy from government, with or without the support of the old utilities.”

Utilities are noticing. One industry paper (PDF) from the Edison Electric Institute calls distributed energy a “disruptive challenge.”

Still, in the near-term, Connecticut’s microgrid program faces significant hurdles. One is legal. Say you live there, and you want to build your very own microgrid. Does the law define what it is? No. Can you build one that crosses over or under a city street? Not sure. Are you subject to the myriad laws that apply to utilities? Could be.

“Lawyers are needed at every stage,” says Sara Bronin of the University of Connecticut School of Law. “If a project has to comply with public utility rules, even more lawyers are needed. Which is great for lawyers, but not for microgrid development.”

The state’s pilot program provides utility-approved legal exemptions for the small number of early microgrids.

“Future microgrid projects may not get the same treatment from utilities,” Bronin says. “And that’s what scares people off from trying to invest in microgrids in the first place here.”

Another barrier in Connecticut and around the country: electricity pricing. For most of us in our homes, electricity costs the same — whether it’s green or fossil, whether we’re energy hogs or not, whether it’s imported or made locally. Reformers want to overhaul pricing, so consumers pay more for energy that’s worth more.

“You start to pay for redundancy,” Esty says. “You pay for resiliency. You pay for any number of these attributes that have been on the sidelines of the 20th century marketplace.”

An old electricity marketplace and architecture, built yesterday, for yesterday. 

“Eventually the public will become so frustrated with the storm response of the traditional grid that they will demand the changes that would allow for more resilience of the grid,” Bronin says.

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