Massachusetts City Plans “Microgrid without Borders”

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As energy democracy and social justice increasingly drive energy planning, Chelsea, Massachusetts hopes to become a model for how it’s done by developing a ‘microgrid without borders.’

microgrid without borders

Historic commercial buildings in downtown Chelsea near City Hall. Photo by Wangkun Jia/Shutterstock.com

Community and climate activists, city officials and energy veterans have come together to develop an unusual microgrid designed to incrementally add buildings through virtual, not physical, connections.

David Dayton, CEO of Clean Energy Solutions and a consultant to the project, describes it as a “neighborhood led, municipally sponsored microgrid without borders.” The buildings are connected contractually and through a cloud-based platform, which allows a central controller to aggregate their energy storage, solar power and load management into a virtual power plant.

Located near Boston, Chelsea is a small industrial city, just 2.2 square miles, and one of the state’s most population dense. The city has many reasons for pursuing the microgrid, but it was an event nearly 1,700 miles away that became a driving force for action: Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The storm decimated most of the island’s grid in 2017, creating the largest blackout in US history. For Chelsea’s large Puerto Rican population, the hardship felt close to home.

“After Hurricane Maria people were waiting for the state to come in and bail them out and it never happened,” said Fidel Maltez, commissioner of the Chelsea Department of Public Works, in an interview with Microgrid Knowledge. “People have to come together on their own and really figure out resiliency.”

Powerful city/community alliance

And that’s how it’s happening in the city. The team behind the project includes GreenRoots, a community-based environmental justice organization and Climable, a climate organization that lists as one of its primary goals the development of community microgrids; and the city government. 

In working on the microgrid, GreenRoots represents the community and approves all design and development decisions, while Climable chairs the technical team and communicates among all stakeholders. 

“The alliance between that nonprofit and the city is a powerful tool for developing a microgrid that is rooted in this concept of energy as a public good,” said Dayton.

The project recently won a $200,000 grant through the state’s Green Communities program and the team is in early discussions with developers. The city plans to be the host and owner of the microgrid assets. And while it’s financing plan isn’t established yet, the team hopes the city will self-fund the project, possibly through a bond or cash reserves. “The goal is to keep this as a public asset,” said Maltez.

Learn more about the Chelsea microgrid in a special session at Microgrid Global 2020, “Energy Resilience for All: Access, Equity and Social Justice.”  Registration is free.

City hall, which includes a 911 emergency call center, will be the first building connected to the microgrid, which the team hopes to complete in 12-24 months. Banks of batteries will provide both electric reliability and peak shaving. The plan also calls for solar, if it can be installed on the historic building, and generators that use biodiesel or bio-derived methane. The microgrid will allow the city to decommission diesel backup generators it now uses.

Savings achieved by the microgrid will exceed repayment costs for installation.  “So that makes it commercially sustainable,” Dayton said. The microgrid will earn revenue and achieve savings a variety of ways — through incentives and by providing grid services and leveraging energy storage.

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Chelsea also has applied for funding from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency, to add the police station, where a solar installation is planned.

Other public and private buildings will be added later, which can be done easily, Dayton said, because of its “microgrids without borders” approach.

“We don’t have to be limited to buildings that are connected together with wires. We can add buildings anywhere in the city. So you can pick up low-income housing and nonprofits and health centers, city buildings, wherever they are,” Dayton said.

Uniqueness of the Chelsea microgrid

A combination of factors make the project unique, the team said. First, it’s “centered around community and I think that’s rare,” said Jen Stevenson Zepeda, associate director at Climable.

Added Dayton: “There are a lot of microgrids in the world, but on campuses, industrial complexes, military bases…They’re all wired together. They’re focused on commercial interest and not community interest, and they don’t allow growth building by building as ours does. We don’t have any models anywhere that we can find of a neighborhood led municipally sponsored microgrid without borders. That’s what we hope to demonstrate and replicate.”

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Elisa Wood 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. How does it work? Does the virtual microgrid offer power during grid outages? What are the key benefits of this concept? It seems that perhaps there is an operating advantage during normal grid operation, but I can’t envision how the microgrid will provide power to disparately located sites.

    • It looks like the way it is proposed, where the batteries are installed will be where the inverters will be. If installed in a community building, then the community building will have back up power available. One might get emergency backup from the mentioned replacement natural gas fueled generators. It seems to me to be a concatenated way to have locals and bond holders to buy back up resilience for the community buildings.

    • It is designed to aggregate and optimize power when the grid is running to maximize financial benefit. When there is an outage, each building- since it has its own batteries- will island itself. Initial focus is on buildings that benefit the community during an outage or for whom continuity of electric service is critical. This includes, for example, buildings that have emergency shelters or heating/cooling centers that people can turn to should the need arise. In an outage the main goal is safety of residents and providing them with the ability to not just shelter-in-place but prosper-in-place. Many people in EJ areas are unable to evacuate in an emergency, so adding clean, reliable energy is vital to their wellbeing.

  2. Dominick Villane says:

    Thank you for sharing this interesting concept! Reducing petrochemical use is a wise choice and very good economic policy. Go Chelsea!

    • We couldn’t agree more! A passage from the recently published RUN-GJC feasibility assessments highlights the correlation between air quality (worsened by use of fossil fuels in nearby industrial settings) and public health:

      “Chelsea, MA is a frontline community burdened by life-threatening public health effects directly related to environmental and industrial hazards. Chelsea residents are some of Massachusetts’s most diverse and vulnerable, yet they bear much of New England’s industrial and public health burden. Chelsea’s social determinants of health are among the state’s most severe, and are exacerbated by climate change. Chelsea is… in the highest category for expected lifetime cancer risks from diesel exposure, and has increased risk for other illnesses such as premature death, heart attack, and chronic respiratory disease. These health challenges have recently become painfully obvious in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same characteristics that define environmental justice populations (language isolation, race and income) are the same characteristics leading to greater COVID-19 impacts. The aforementioned respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses (specifically hypertension, diabetes, respiratory illnesses and obesity) coupled with key social determinants of health such as poor and overcrowded housing conditions, poor public transit infrastructure among others, are making Chelsea the most impacted community in Massachusetts. The City’s workforce consists mainly of ‘essential employees,’ with nearly 80% of Chelsea’s workers considered essential per the Governor’s advisory. This has made social distancing almost impossible and resulted in a disproportionate number of Latinos and non-English speakers
      infected with the disease and overwhelming intensive care units. While the infection rate changes daily, the rate is currently at least six times higher than the State of Massachusetts as a whole.”

  3. Ian Graham says:

    Did the MG have to register to become a utility? who has regulator authority over this plan beyond the city? Usulaly these plans are shutdown due to very expensive difficult statues that you need to be a utility….

    • The RUN-GJC team is currently researching how regulations positively and negatively impact our design. We should have more information on that piece shortly.

  4. Rick Francesche says:

    “Microgrid – a small network of electricity users with a local source of supply that is usually attached to a centralized national grid but is able to function independently.“

    This cannot function independently of the grid, therefore it is not a microgrid.

    • Several readers observe that this is not a “real microgrid.” They are quite correct, by the conventional definition, because the Chelsea design does not connect buildings with wires and share microgrid-generated power among them. Each building (usually with multiple tenants) is its own “island” in emergencies, with sufficient on-site resources to sustain power and communications. The buildings are connected, however, wirelessly via a cloud-based program that can coordinate their resources (storage, load management, distributed generation) during the grid’s peak demand hours.. This way, additional buildings can be added anywhere, at any time. They form a “virtual power plant” of value in various local and wholesale markets and incentive programs. That’s why we call it a “microgrid without borders.”

  5. “City hall, which includes a 911 emergency call center, will be the first building connected to the microgrid, which the team hopes to complete in 12-24 months. Banks of batteries will provide both electric reliability and peak shaving. The plan also calls for solar, if it can be installed on the historic building, and natural gas generation. The microgrid will allow the city to decommission diesel backup generators it now uses.”

    Basically a change over from diesel fueled backup generators to natural gas generation backup. As old infrastructure ages, things like ground subsidence can cause breaks in these gas lines, leaks, fires, explosions. One can pretty much bet that if power goes out the 911 center will take over first demand on the micro-grid.

    “”Added Dayton: “There are a lot of microgrids in the world, but on campuses, industrial complexes, military bases…They’re all wired together. They’re focused on commercial interest and not community interest, and they don’t allow growth building by building as ours does. We don’t have any models anywhere that we can find of a neighborhood led municipally sponsored microgrid without borders. That’s what we hope to demonstrate and replicate.””

    The downside, who and what “decides” what (IS) a community interest? IF a community or public building has the energy storage within its confines, who gets the stored energy when the power goes out? It would be easy to “island” a community building with energy storage on site, but harder to mix with the local grid and send energy to homes affected by a power outage.

    • The intent is for the community to make all key decisions. Each building “gets” its own power when the grid goes out, because this kind of microgrid installs sufficient on-site storage and clean-fueled generation in each participating building to sustain power and communidation through emergencies. So the key decisions are which buildings will participate. The intent is for priority to be given to housing of vulnerable populations, the institutions and small businesses that serve them, and healthe and public saftey facilities. In Chelsea, the City and a respected community-based nonprofit are collaborating to prioritize building selection.

  6. Sounds similar to Germany’s SonnenCommunity (https://sonnengroup.com/sonnencommunity/), a successful virtual energy trading platform.

    • The SonnenCommunity sounds very cool- thanks for sharing! Currently, we do not have plans for P2P energy trading in this design.

  7. Elias Kamau says:

    I can see this working very well in urban environments and think it would be a great help for cities that experience frequent power interruptions/outages. What is the minimum number of HH that you would need to implement this type of MG system profitably? Elias , Nairobi Kenya.

  8. No, this design does not sell power among users, cross rights of way, or string new wires between buildings., so it is not a utility. It’s more like a group of homes with solar panels, batteries, and generators. But the group is connected wirelessly in a cloud-based network, so they can coordinate their use of those resources, and offer their sum as a “virtual power plant” to various incentive and market programs.

  9. A single building, like an apartment building, health center, school, or public safety building can participate to start. Its profitability would depend on local markets and incentive programs for the storage and renewable-energy benefits to the local grid. In Massachusetts, these external payments plus the building’s utility savings will pay for the installation over time (usually under 10 years). As more buildings are added, the value and negotiating strength of the combined “virtual power plant” grows, and the transaction costs per building decrease. Of course the value of dependable power and communication in emergencies is never fully compensated financially.

  10. An important note on the fuel used in local generators: The design calls for biofuels like green diesel or bio-derived methane, for liquid- and gas-fired generators, respectively. The batteries will carry each participating building through most grid outages, but in a prolonged emergency without sufficient solar recharging, on-site generation is needed. The microgrid sponsors in Chelsea and Chinatown wish to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil-derived fuels. We call these “fossil-free zones.” Therefore the design emplys storage of “clean” biofuels and generators that can burn them. The same is true for local boilers needed for heat, where full electrification is not yet feasible.

  11. Thanks for the content comments David and Jen, more entities may be looking long and hard at such solutions in the near future. California seems to be the “poster child” for renewable mandates, actual grid infrastructure and teething problems “making it happen”. The allowance of IOUs like PG&E to use the PSPS to avoid wildfires has put communities into the situation of CCAs and Micro or Mini grids for reliable power in their communities. Distributed smart ESS in many buildings could be a large part solution to poor grid services from now on. From an efficiency standpoint one could use the distributed energy storage units in buildings as arbitrage, to charge at off peak hours something like 12 midnight to 5 AM each day, store and use this power later on for “peak demand” electricity. We hear about the “duck curve” that is typically from 10 AM to 2 PM each day. One could use the stored energy for the 6 AM to 9 AM wake up time each day and use battery power to supplement the building’s energy demand with off peak power stored, then use “duck curve” generated energy to help charge the battery and power the building, then after the sun goes down, use the battery to offset “demand charges” from the 4 PM to 9 PM period of each day.

    The commercial and industrial sector usually have lower electricity rates than residential ratepayers, but are hit hard by “demand charges”. Some commercial and industrial entities are installing (just) a large scale ESS on premises. The ability to arbitrage using the battery allows them to power up and avoid these high priced demand charges. Depending on utility and ‘their’ energy programs, this one step can save 50% on an electric bill each month without any solar PV generation. The new resiliency, smart ESS first, add solar PV or wind generation to your building later.

    • Yes, the reduction in demand charges (monthly T&D and seasonal “ICAP”) is an important component of the savings & revenue stack needed to pay for BESS. Other components include various incentives and wholesale markets, which are of course regional.. In general, a BESS equal to the building peak load for a couple of hours will pay for itself in states like MA over 7 or 8 years.

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