Message for President Joe Biden: US Infrastructure Needs Microgrids

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President Joe Biden is expected to release an infrastructure plan this month that sounds ready-made for microgrids. His goal, he said, is to make infrastructure “more climate resilient” to achieve “cheaper and cleaner” transport.

Although microgrids seem like a perfect match for Biden’s plan, it’s uncertain how much they will play into it. Washington is well aware of solar, wind and energy storage, but microgrids, not so much. The technology, as used today, is still relatively new to the game. So microgrids don’t seem to be high on Biden’s radar. At least, he’s not using the term much, so far, when he talks about clean energy.

This isn’t surprising. Microgrids still suffer from lack of name recognition. Polling by Lake Research Partners in October/November 2020 found that of 1,200 US voters surveyed, only 5% were very familiar with microgrids. The vast majority — 73% — were clueless about the term.

“The good news is that knowledge leads to support of microgrids,” said Jonathan Voss, a pollster who conducted the survey. After those surveyed received a brief tutorial on microgrids, two thirds said they favor their use and 45% strongly favor their use.

microgrids

Courtesy of Civil Society Institute and Lake Research Partners. Presentation at Microgrid 2020 Virtual

“That is strong support for something people are not familiar with to begin with,” said Voss, speaking at Microgrid 2020 Virtual. Voss presented the data as part of a larger microgrid research project by the Civil Society Institute.

The polling also found that greater familiarity led to greater support. Among the five percent that were very familiar with microgrids, 80% favored use of the technology within the electric grid.

Congress shows interest

There is more good news. Familiarity with microgrids appears to be growing in Congress. Last year, Democrats in Congress introduced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that would boost renewable energy, grid modernization, resilience measures and microgrids. Microgrids received particular attention in the proposed legislation because of their resilience and ability to integrate innovative technologies into the grid.

More recently, US lawmakers reintroduced a $1.5 billion bill for clean energy microgrids, sponsored by Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York, and Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, a Democrat from California. The bill has 39 co-sponsors.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, has been a strong backer of microgrids for several years. Her home state, Alaska, is among the top states for number of installed microgrids. And, in the House, a microgrid developer is among its members: Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois, who was elected in 2018.

Still, as the Biden administration plans for infrastructure improvements, the microgrid industry has its work cut out to be included.

“Right now, every voice is being raised in Washington, so it’s easy for good solutions to get drowned out in the noise,” said Cameron Brooks, president of E9 Insight, a regulatory advisory firm that focuses on the activities of the state public utility commissions across the country.

“This is especially true when many lawmakers don’t really understand what role microgrids can play to support their other goals like clean energy, resiliency and equity. The microgrid industry has a real opportunity to make sure that message is heard, but it won’t happen without a concentrated educational campaign,” he said.

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Microgrids leverage private investment

Brooks pointed out that in addition to the resilience and environmental arguments for microgrids, a case can be made for their economic advantages.

“We often think about infrastructure — and especially the electric grid — as a public project, but microgrids connect distributed energy resources on both sides of the customer meter with investments coming from public and private sources,” Brooks said. “The Biden administration can leverage the investments that private customers and local communities are making in grid resilience and distributed energy resources. Not only would this accelerate the infrastructure we need, but it would also reduce the taxpayer’s exposure to investment risk.”

Several disasters and power outages over the last several years have shown the need to embed microgrids in infrastructure, perhaps none more blatantly than the 11-hour power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in late 2017.

A list for President Biden

So, President Biden, in case you’re reading this, you may be looking for some examples of how microgrids support infrastructure. We made a list for you.

Port of San Diego

Photo courtesy Port of San Diego

The Port of San Diego, one of a growing number of large infrastructure projects incorporating microgrids, has taken the next big step in its climate plan by awarding a $2.7 million microgrid installation contract to EDF Renewables Distribution Systems.

“We are excited. We’re in a race to be the first microgrid at a port in the US,” said Marshall Merrifield, a Port of San Diego Board commissioner. “The microgrid is going to be the crown jewel in our efforts to achieve the goals in our climate action plan,” he said, noting that the port was the first to create such a plan. “It should be a model for any cargo terminal in the country.”

The contract was awarded by the board as part of a $9.6 million effort, $4.9 million of which was funded by a grant from the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program. The CEC grant pays for the $2.77 million cost of the microgrid infrastructure as well as construction, design and consulting support, said a spokeswoman for the Port of San Diego.

Pittsburgh International Airport has begun construction of what it says will be the first microgrid that fully powers a major US airport.

With permits and regulatory approvals in hand, Peoples Natural Gas is installing a microgrid that will include five natural gas fired generators on airport property, and nearly 7,800 solar panels on eight nearby acres.

After it’s completed next summer, the microgrid will act as the primary power source for the Pittsburgh airport with the electric grid serving as backup. The gas-fired generators will provide 20 MW and the solar field about 3 MW, exceeding the airport’s peak demand of 14 MW.

“Part of our mission is to be a world leader in aviation innovation and this project is about powering airports into the future,” said Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis. “This project will bring power resiliency and redundancy to enhance safety and ensure continued operations for the traveling public.”

Schneider Electric has won a $5.2 million contract to provide a microgrid for the nation’s second busiest port, the Port of Long Beach in the city of Long Beach, California.

One of the giants in the microgrid arena, Schneider will design, engineer and build the $7.1 million project. Part of the funding — $5 million — comes from a California Energy Commission grant.

Microgrids provide a way for ports to minimize use of diesel generators, their common form of power backup. Ports are seeking cleaner options as they pursue new energy and environmental goals. For example, the Port of Long Beach — which calls itself  “The Green Port” — is working to become a zero-emission operation.

ameresco

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Photo courtesy of Ameresco

The US Navy chose Ameresco in a task order for a $58 million energy resilience project, which includes a microgrid, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, one of four remaining naval shipyards in the US.

The project expands on a long-term partnership between Ameresco and the Kittery, Maine, facility, extending back to Ameresco’s installation of a microgrid controller at the facility in 2015.

Under the agreement, Ameresco provides on-site generation, battery storage and microgrid controls via an energy savings performance contract, which spares the Navy from making an upfront investment.

An airport microgrid is moving forward on the far northern coast of California that could provide relief for planned utility power shutoffs and be a template for other, similar projects.

Called the Redwood Coast Airport Project, it originated at the Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC), an affiliate of Humboldt State University’s Environmental Resources Engineering program. Other partners on the project include the county’s Public Works Aviation Division, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), which is a community choice aggregation.

SERC also took the lead in designing and implementing the microgrid at Blue Lake Rancheria, a Native American reservation in Humboldt County. The Redwood Coast Airport Project was conceived as SERC was finishing up the microgrid for the casino and hotel at Blue Lake Rancheria, said Jim Zoellick, managing research engineer at SERC.

Already on the map for its public service microgrids, Montgomery County is advancing into the next frontier of the technology — its nexus with transportation — with plans for a microgrid-ready depot to charge electric buses.

The Maryland county plans to power electric buses at its Brookville Maintenance Facility in Silver Spring.

A neighbor to the nation’s capital, Montgomery County is Maryland’s most affluent and populated county. It has also become a leader in microgrids, creating prototype contracts and development procedures for local governments to study and use.

NJ Transit light rail trolley stopped at the Washington Park station. By LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES/Shutterstock.com

The New Jersey Transit Corp., called NJ Transit, dropped plans to include a 140-MW natural gas power plant in one of the country’s largest microgrid projects in an effort to have it run entirely on renewable resources.

The NJ Transitgrid is a $577 million microgrid designed to provide reliable service on a key portion of the rail system between New York City and northern New Jersey.

The project was conceived after Superstorm Sandy caused widespread, lengthy power outages along the East Coast in 2012. Two years later, the Federal Transit Administration awarded $410 million for the project.

“NJ Transitgrid is a critical resiliency project that ensures we can maintain limited, but vital, rail service for our customers in the event of local and regional power interruptions,” NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett said October 21 after the agency’s board approved revising the scope of the project.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is moving ahead with plans to build microgrids at three water treatment plants and a pumping station. 

The water district’s board approved the projects, a move needed to nail down $10.3 million in incentives from the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP).

In response to recent wildfires and public safety power shutoffs, the CPUC modified the roughly $166 million annual SGIP to offer enhanced incentives for microgrid-capable energy storage systems at critical facilities that benefit high fire threat districts and low-income and disadvantaged communities.

The McKinleyville Community Services District in northern California has selected Ameresco to build a $2 million microgrid at a wastewater treatment plant.

While California has seen a wave of microgrid projects in response to wildfire-related power outages, the McKinleyville project is driven by a desire to cut electricity costs.

The project includes a 580-kW solar array, a 500-kW battery energy storage system that can produce 1,340 KWh in a single discharge, and an existing diesel generator.

AlphaStruxure

AlphaStruxure will bring multiple microgrids to JFK Airport. By PitK/Shutterstock.com

Several microgrids are being planned as part of the $13 billion John F. Kennedy Airport modernization project underway in New York. The microgrids are part of a strategy to make the facility 100% reliable on renewable energy.

Representatives of Schneider Electric and AlphaStruxure discuss the project in this video interview from Microgrid 2019, a conference hosted by Microgrid Knowledge.

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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. Michael Brisbois says:

    Thanks Elisa…

  2. Jane Twitmyer says:

    Absolutely and someone needs to get to Gena McCarthy and to John Kerry and et the DER concept up front in their heads! Kerry keeps talking about all the new technology we need to decarbonize …. How about some software to manage on-site and community DERs?

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