A Good Microgrid Fit vs. a Microgrid Craze

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There’s a big difference between a good microgrid fit and what one microgrid manager calls the microgrid craze.

“When I look at the microgrid craze, I don’t see how it’s going to happen,” says Alan Rubacha, director of the physical plant at Wesleyan Unviersity, which was the first to receive funding from Connecticut’s microgrid program, an effort that aims to help protect municipalities from outages.

“Some people think they’ll put a fuel cell in a high school and power a Stop ‘N Shop nearby. But it doesn’t make sense that those projects are viable economically or that the benefits are feasible,” he says.

For example, there’s a firehouse right next to Wesleyan’s new generator. But bringing that facility a simple feeder would be impossible, Rubacha says.

“It would be a mountain of paper work. I could say for a fact it would be impossible in Connecticut to do that, even though it would be great.”

“I don’t see where it makes sense for a small town to be a power company for others’ emergency loads. A Stop ‘N Shop should put in its own backup generator. Microgrids need labor to maintain them.To try to develop microgrids to serve others is a little artificial.”

What does make sense is for Wesleyan to power its own buildings, Rubacha says.

The university has had much of the needed infrastructure in place since the 1960s–steam, condensate lines and dunk banks, which are conduits in the ground that carry electrical wires or fiber optics, he says. That infrastructure is what makes the university a good fit for a microgrid.

Microgrids are very touchy, he says. Wesleyan has a dedicated staff to manage its microgrid and tests it once a year. That involves shutting down the entire campus and practicing moving into island mode. “It’s a lot of work and very simple problems can keep the entire grid from running if you’re not practicing,” he says.

In Connecticut, the state is putting money into the right places, Rubacha says. “But I’m not sure how many places there are to put money into. There are costs microgrid owners deal with forever.”

For Wesleyan, the microgrid offers numerous advantages. It keeps the heat and lights on for the students. And it provides energy flexibility. “If a new storage source or power source comes along, I can take advantage of it, whether buying renewable energy or using my own prime movers,” Rubacha says.

But the advantages aren’t only for the university. Rubacha is dedicated to being a good partner with the local utility.

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“The utilities are our partner in this. They are our backstop. We have to be responsible grid owners. We have controls to shed load and control our machines to improve on the grid’s frequency. It’s important for Wesleyan to be a good consumer and load-shed or bring assets online to flatten the demand profile of the grid. That’s something we do and have been doing for years.”

In July 2013, Wesleyan received a $694,000 grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental protection to connect its CHP engines to the campus electrical grid. The microgrid is capable of powering the whole campus (without air conditioning) if there’s an outage.

The university’s Freeman Athletic Center will serve as an emergency shelter for residents of Middletown if there’s a power outage, and also will serve as a designated FEMA distribution center for first responders during an emergency.

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