8 Communities Breaking New Ground with Microgrids

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Not so long ago community microgrids were novel. Typically more cumbersome to build than microgrids for businesses or campuses, they were slow starters in the microgrid development race.

community microgrids

By Vectors Bang/Shutterstock.com

That changed as the microgrid industry streamlined development and financing, costs dropped, and controllers and software grew in sophistication. 

Community microgrids are still far from plug and play, but we’re seeing many more of them being announced. Climate change and natural disasters are a big driver. Microgrids offer an effective one-two climate protection punch for communities that want to convert to cleaner energy to meet long term sustainability goals but also must find immediate ways to keep the lights on when storms, wildfires, droughts and other calamities threaten the grid.

Here we highlight eight community microgrids that are breaking new ground. There are many more — especially through government or utility sponsored programs in places like California, New Jersey and Maryland. So it was hard to cull the list. We chose these eight projects — some operating, some still being built —  because we were struck by their origins, ambition, unique features and forward looking approach. Here they are in no particular order.

  • Panton, Vermont

Green Mountain Power (GMP) broke ground in the spring on this solar/storage microgrid in the tiny town on the border of Vermont and New York. We feature the project for two reasons. First, it is part of a larger plan by the utility to create resiliency zones to protect against climate disasters. Second, the microgrid gives GMP an opportunity to island a distribution circuit using inverter-based sources with no reliance on fossil fuel generation backup — making this an unusual utility microgrid. Initially, the Panton microgrid will serve 50 customers, but it could grow to include another 900 customers, according to GMP. The microgrid project grew out of a climate resiliency plan the Vermont Public Utilities Commission approved in October 2020. Vermont’s Green Mountain Power to Build Microgrid, Plans Others

  • Chelsea, Massachusetts

Located just outside of Boston, this microgrid-in-planning provides an example of what can be accomplished when city officials and community groups join forces for the greater good. Most fascinating, this is a “microgrid without borders,” meaning it’s being designed not just for use by one or two critical buildings but for as many Chelsea residents as possible. To get a sense of some of the philosophical underpinnings of the microgrid, check out the book “Hope” by David Sayre, a consultant to the project. Massachusetts City Plans “Microgrid without Borders”

  • Lac-Mégantic, Quebec 

This Canadian city recently activated its microgrid, which encompasses more than 30 residential, commercial and institutional buildings, roughly half of the downtown area. The microgrid represents the determination by the city to loosen its ties to fossil fuels after a devastating tragedy. In 2013, a train carrying petroleum derailed in the city, exploded and killed 47 people. Now, city officials see the microgrid as a living laboratory to help others decarbonize. Visitors can learn about the microgrid through an indoor and outdoor interactive technology showcase. Quebec Town Begins Operating Clean Energy Microgrid Following Fossil Fuel Disaster

  • Cuyahoga County, Ohio

This project deserves recognition for its magnitude and ambition. The county of 1.2 million people is considering microgrids for at least three areas, including one for an innovation hub that spans several municipalities and includes the Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport and the NASA Glenn Research Center. Like most microgrids, it’s being designed to ensure electric reliability. But the county also sees a microgrid as an economic play. “It’s a bold and important direction that we’re taking,” said Armond Budish, a Cuyahoga County executive. “It’s about business attraction and innovation and clean energy. This will put us on track for our economy to come roaring out of the pandemic.” Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Presses Ahead on Microgrids

  • Bronzeville, Illinois

No list of community microgrids is complete without mention of the Bronzeville community microgrid, located outside of Chicago. The 5.5-MW microgrid creates the nation’s first utility-operated microgrid cluster. It is connected to a microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which allows it to demonstrate the “grid-of-microgrids” concept. Some forward thinkers believe such clustering represents the future of the US grid because of the efficiency, redundancy and reliability that can be created when microgrids are connected together. ComEd Taps Enchanted Rock for Bronzeville Microgrid

  • Hamden, Connecticut

The first microgrid won’t be built for a few years, but it represents forward-looking energy planning by this south-central Connecticut municipality. The city council recently approved an energy plan that builds the first microgrid by 2025, with another one coming five years later. Hamden, a town of 62,000 people, sees microgrids as key building blocks of the future and plans to use the technology to capture sustainability and resilience. The microgrids may encompass schools, an ice rink, shopping centers, restaurants, gas stations, banks, emergency care facilities, the town center, a library and the town hall as well as the fire and police headquarters. Hamden, Connecticut, Plans Microgrids to Help Meet Energy Goals

  • Asheville, North Carolina
critical services microgrid

Asheville, NC. By Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

This picturesque city in the Blue Ridge Mountains is known for its art scene, so it’s not surprising that the idea for a microgrid emerged from the creativity of local residents. The grassroots project calls for several nanogrids that would eventually be scaled up to a virtual power plant or microgrid of nanogrids (if they are wired together). Laura Brower, an aerospace engineer and resident involved in promoting the microgrid, summed up the spirit of the project: “I believe that a community’s health and happiness relies on their ability to manage their local resources and make their own decisions — at a community level — about how to live. Local resource management can have a long-lasting positive impact on the environment, which is very important to me.” Locals and Techies Promote Intriguing Critical Services Microgrid for Asheville, NC

  • The Tesla Penalty Microgrid

OK, it’s not exactly a project yet, and we don’t know exactly where the microgrid will be built, but we decided it deserved to be on this list because of its highly unusual origins. The San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District in May fined Tesla for air pollution violations. The penalty? Build a community microgrid somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Smart move by the air district. The microgrid can provide a twofer: help clean up the air while also supplying the community with more reliable electricity. Tesla Cited for Air Pollution Violations. Its Penalty? Build a Community Microgrid

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Are there other community microgrids that deserve a mention? Please post them in our comments section or on the Microgrid Knowledge LinkedIn Group.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. Vic Hardy says:

    Is it just me or is the only salient difference between microgrids and homeowners with solar and maybe a power wall battery the diesel generator in lieu of enough battery storage to keeps the lights running at night? Is the perceived vision of the microgrid community that a lot of diesel generators can over time replace 24/7 coal/gas/nuclear plants?

    But it still diesel. So if the long term goal is to rid ourselves of coal/gas/nuclear then either we need a ton of generators at night, or on cloudy days and/or when the wind doesn’t blow if we’re using wind turbines or we need many tons of batteries.

    The problem with focusing on a future with only renewables is they’re inherently unreliable and the more you bring on line the more storage you need. Right now storage is way, way too expensive to power a community for more than an hour or two. I do like the idea of distributed power generation (albeit the utilities do not) but until mass electrical storage has a huge breakthrough we’ll still need peaker plants, either local diesel generators or existing coal/gas/nuclear.

    • I would submit that chasing the status quo of centralized commodity fueled generation is the least efficient form of generation and dispatch one can do.

      FERC needs a new purpose, to become the ombudsman of territorial infighting between States, counties and cities when large scale transmission projects are proposed. It takes an average of 10 years from concept to construction for these sorely needed infrastructure upgrades needed to connect off shore wind generation from coast to coast and solar PV farms and wind farms from north to south in the U.S. wholesale electricity market. RTO/ISO entities need a good washing/drying and ‘ironing’ to implement FERC rulings 841 and 2222 into the wholesale market. The retail markets need to become EaaS markets and not ‘regulated monopoly’ or uni-directional monopolism’s.

      I like the Chelsea Massachusetts concept of the, “microgrid without borders,” direct aggregate grid arbitrage energy storage or nodes of energy storage and solar PV arrays or wind farms feeding a VPP for later use locally seems like a very smart and much more efficient than centralized generation and transmission line dispatch methodology.