Latest US Infrastructure Bill Continues to Champion Microgrids, Resilience and Remote Communities

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The bipartisan infrastructure bill — which mentions microgrids five times — would pump billions of dollars into the US grid, partly to bolster reliability and resilience.

Unveiled Aug. 1, the roughly $1.2 trillion bill is a slimmed down version of legislation floated by the White House in late March.

Senate infrastructure

The US Capitol building in Washington DC. By
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The much-awaited bill includes about $550 billion in new spending. However, like President Joe Biden’s proposal, the legislation retains funding for infrastructure resilience — about $50 billion — some of it for communities vulnerable to climate-driven disasters.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes a major section on grid infrastructure and resiliency, much of which could directly or indirectly boost microgrid development.

Funding for hardening the grid

The section requires the Energy Department to establish a $5 billion matching grant program to harden the grid. Among other things, the funding can be used on distributed energy resources, including microgrids and energy storage, to make the grid more resilient during disruptive events.

Half of the funding can go to states and tribes and half can go to eligible entities, such as utilities. The funding would last for four years, starting in fiscal year 2022.

The bill also establishes a $5 billion research program providing grants for demonstration projects that show new approaches to hardening transmission, storage and distribution infrastructure.

Money for remote microgrids

The bill provides $1 billion to help remote and rural areas set up microgrids, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency, among other things.

Lawmakers also propose amendments to the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act by directing utilities to promote the use of demand-response and demand flexibility practices by commercial, residential and industrial consumers to reduce electricity use when electric demand is especially. (Microgrids and DERs act as tools to undertake both demand response and demand flexibility, so passage of these provisions could help spur these technologies.)

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The bill creates a $40 billion “transmission facilitation” program for power lines that carry at least 1,000 MW or upgrades to lines of at least 500 MW. Eligible projects include ones that connect microgrids to existing transmission, transportation or telecommunications infrastructure in Alaska, Hawaii or a U.S. territory. The legislation offers $3 billion in smart grid funding.

Combined heat and power, a resource used by some microgrids, especially larger campus facilities, also gets special attention. The bill directs the Energy Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to review within 180 days barriers to interconnecting combined heat and power facilities of up to 150 MW to the grid. Within 18 months, the DOE and FERC would issue model guidance aimed at reducing those barriers.

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Transportation-related microgrids

The bill directs the Transportation Department and the DOE to create a Joint Office of Energy and Transportation to provide technical assistance related to the deployment, operation, and maintenance of zero emission vehicle charging and refueling infrastructure, renewable energy generation and vehicle-to-grid integration, including microgrids.

The joint office would also set up a program to promote renewable energy generation, storage and grid integration, including microgrids, in transportation rights-of-way.

The bill includes $7.5 billion for building a national network of electric vehicle charger stations.

Congressional outlook uncertain

In a sign of the bill’s support, the Senate voted 66-28 on July 30 to move ahead with the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, is accepting amendments to the bill so it could change before a vote, expected late this week.

The Senate bill must also get through the U.S. House of Representatives, where some Democrats contend the legislation isn’t aggressive enough in tackling climate change and other issues.

“There are still a lot of moving pieces to this legislation, but many of the investments proposed here will provide a down payment toward programs that bring a much-needed focus on resilience,” said Cameron Brooks, executive director of Think Microgrid, an advocacy coalition that seeks to educate policymakers about the potential of microgrids.

Congress may take up additional energy programs, such as a clean energy standard, through a $3.5 trillion “budget reconciliation” bill put forward by the Democrats. The process allows legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority and cannot be filibustered. The Democrats are still undecided on the exact timing of the reconciliation bill.

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