Major U.S. Senate Energy Bill Pushes Microgrids, Grid Modernization

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Microgrids get a federal push under a broad Congressional energy bill unveiled yesterday by U.S. Senate energy committee leaders after months of hearings.

The bipartisan Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 elevates many of the issues that have already been spurring microgrid development in the United States — the need for resiliency, cybersecurity, energy efficiency, and remote access to electricity.

So far, states have been largely responsible for advancing the microgrid market, with New York alone pushing for $40 million in community microgrid development. But if passed by Congress, the bill could mark a new federal role.

Both grid-connected and remote microgrids would receive support under the legislation.

Grid-connected microgrids would be eligible for grants to improve grid efficiency and performance. Specifically, the grants would focus on improving observability, advanced controls, and prediction of system performance on the electric distribution system. The projects would include a cybersecurity element.

Grant applications would be accepted from partnerships of utilities, private companies, states, national labs, grid operators and universities. Each project would include at least two distributed energy resources, specifically distributed generation, combined heat and power, microgrids, energy storage, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, demand response, and intelligent load.

To promote remote microgrids — what the bill calls hybrid microgrid systems — the federal government could create demonstration projects under a five-phase strategy, starting with a feasibility study and ending with a cost-benefit analysis.

The remote microgrids would be used to increase the resiliency of critical infrastructure and to serve remote communities, particularly those subject to severe storms and high energy costs for power, heating and cooling, and transportation.

The bill also calls for a study that would tackle some of the vexing issues facing the electric grid as it becomes more decentralized, including what utility ownership and operating model advances multi-customer microgrids and distributed energy.

In addition, regional grid operators would be required to study cost, benefits and the barriers — and how to reduce them — to use of microgrids and distributed energy for dispatch.

The bill is sponsored by Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Maria Cantwell, a ranking Democrat on the committee from Washington. Murkowski has been a strong advocate of use of remote microgrids in Alaska, a world leader in microgrid operation and development, according to Navigant Research.

The comprehensive legislation represents a coming together by committee Republicans and Democrats on 114 bills that were offered in recent months on energy efficiency, infrastructure, supply, accountability, and conservation programs.

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The sponsors described the bill as a way to save energy, expand domestic supplies, facilitate investment into critical infrastructure, protect the grid, boost energy trade, improve the performance of federal agencies, and renew programs that have proven effective.

The bill sponsors reported other key provisions as:

• Efficiency – Energy efficiency provides significant benefits for consumers, the economy, and the environment. The provisions in this title include agreements on everything from longer-term utility energy service contracts to the reauthorization of the weatherization and state energy programs. The efficiency of our homes, buildings, and manufacturing facilities all stand to increase as a result of it.

• Infrastructure – We depend on electrical transmission lines and other infrastructure to transport energy from where it is produced to where it is used. This title will help modernize our electrical grid, enhance cybersecurity safeguards, maintain the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, provide a streamlined process for natural gas export projects, and ensure a qualified, well-trained workforce.

• Supply – To provide for an energy supply that is increasingly abundant, affordable, clean, diverse, and secure, this title focuses on the development of renewable energy, traditional resources, and non-fuel minerals alike. The responsible development of American resources – including hydropower geothermal, bioenergy and rare earth elements – will strengthen our economy, competitiveness, and security for decades to come.

• Accountability – Practical reforms are needed to advance innovation, protect electric reliability, and ensure the proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Among the provisions in this title are the reauthorization of certain energy-related components of the America COMPETES Act, better interagency coordination of energy/water initiatives, and the repeal of numerous provisions within the U.S. Code that are outdated or redundant.

• Conservation Reauthorization – The Committee is also responsible for oversight and stewardship of our public lands. The bipartisan legislation permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a way that balances land acquisition with other conservation programs important to states and permanently reauthorizes the Historic Preservation Fund, both set to expire this fall. It also creates a new National Park Maintenance and Revitalization Fund, to address the maintenance backlog at some of our nation’s most treasured public places.

A summary of the bill and a link to the full document is available here.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three 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.


  1. Yup, if passed this could be pretty significant for Alaska! What’s particularly interesting is that this bill would require the federal government to implement the microgrid strategy and promote adoption, probably through DOE incentive dollars.

    The bill defines a “hybrid” microgrid to include conventional generation and at least one alternative energy resource. Interestingly, many remote Alaskan communities are already engaged in similar projects. Driven by the need to balance power intermittencies created by large scale wind generation, communities (e.g., Kodiak Island) have deployed fast ramping diesel gensets and/or energy storage, typically in the form of flywheel. In fact, over the past few years storage has gained increasing traction as isolated communities move to diversify away from conventional generation and reduce costs associated with fuel price uncertainty and transportation logistics.

    If this bill is indeed passed, I’d expect any future developments to be driven by energy-cost reductions, serving as a platform for renewable integration. These microgrds will probably not include much of the distributed automation hardware and complex software systems required to promote an exceptionally high degree of reliability and outage reduction.


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