Cleveland Seeks Developer in Next Stage of Large Downtown Microgrid Project

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Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and partners have issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) seeking a developer for what could become a $100 million microgrid district in downtown Cleveland.

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Downtown Cleveland by By Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock

Working with the City of Cleveland, Cleveland Public Power and the Cleveland Organization, the county seeks responses to the RFQ by November 15.

Cleveland’s downtown microgrid district would be of a size and scope and nature seen in few microgrids to date. According to project plans, it would encompass Cleveland’s central business district, a two- to three-square-mile area, bound roughly by Interstate 90 and the Cuyahoga River.

Research by Cleveland State University (CSU) found businesses want to relocate to areas with microgrids. Interest is particularly high within finance, insurance, health care, and tech research and manufacturing, all industries that require highly reliable power.

“These same commercial activities also happen to be where the most economic growth is in America right now,” said Andrew Thomas, executive-in-residence for the Maxine Levin College of Urban Affairs’ Energy Policy Center at CSU.

RFP planned for December

To bring this economic growth to Cleveland, the team seeks a developer to build a state of the art, highly resilient microgrid that can serve existing and future downtown customers.

“The microgrid team is interested in clean energy and system security, but its primary motivation in building a microgrid is economic development,” said Thomas in an interview with Microgrid Knowledge.

The project partners issued the RFQ on October 17. Middough Engineering is managing the process.

“We are asking for respondents to establish their experience with building and operating a microgrid, and their financial wherewithal to do so in this case. We are not asking for any specific plans,” Thomas said.

The RFQ will be followed by a request for proposals that will likely be issued in December, he said.

Acquiring microgrid district customers

Acquiring a customer base is the biggest risk the microgrid district project team faces in seeing the project through to fruition, according to Thomas.

“The study team recognizes that an investment of this magnitude will not be undertaken without sufficient committed customers. There are a couple of ways that this can be mitigated,” he said.

For example, the county may build the microgrid district out in stages, with each stage launched once a sufficient customer base is acquired. The team also may use Cuyahoga County resources to identify and recruit the customers. “The county’s interest is primarily in attracting new commercial activity to downtown Cleveland,” Thomas said.

Microgrid district generation sources

No particular generation sources are being sought for the microgrid, but they must be economic and low carbon. That said, natural gas is likely to play a central role, given the project’s need for baseload, 24×7 power and the abundance of shale gas in the area.

“There will need to be some form of locally generated power to ensure that the microgrid stays up during general grid interruptions,” Thomas said. “Batteries can only provide short term support.”

Enhancing cybersecurity and reducing greenhouse gases

The Downtown Cleveland Microgrid District will also reduce the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions the city produces, making for a cleaner, healthier environment, said Mike Foley, Cuyahoga County director of sustainability.

The project team also is prioritizing cybersecurity. “Cybersecurity threats for electrical grids is at least a monthly news story,” Foley pointed out.

He added: “Developing this microgrid lessens the vulnerability our region and its businesses face over the coming years. This is the opportunity for us to be innovative and create something that has never been done to this scale before.”

Interest from utilities, microgrid control companies

The U.S. power grid registered the highest number of power outages among developed nations worldwide, highlighted Cleveland Foundation Environent Program Officer Stephen Love. “Combined with the increased threat of outages due to climate change induced severe weather and major cybersecurity vulnerabilities, the need for reliable and resilient electricity is increasingly a bottom line calculation for many businesses,” Love said in an interview. “The Cleveland Foundation believes the microgrid will serve as a strategic economic development opportunity for Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland, leveraging our municipal utility and developing the largest microgrid district in the country.”

Thomas wouldn’t venture a guess as to how many would respond to the RFQ, but he did say that “there has been a great deal of interest in this idea by utilities and control companies alike.” The project team is using a solicitation process similar to that used by Ohio State University to conduct its recent energy power services privatization strategy.

Release of the RFQ follows an extensive series of studies on the value of resiliency, as well as the technological design, engineering and economics of the project. They include three feasibility studies carried out by Cleveland State and Case Western Universities and funded by the Cleveland Foundation.

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