Massachusetts Examines the Feasibility of Microgrid Projects

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Massachusetts continues to move forward evaluating the feasibility of 14 potential microgrids, all part of the state’s consideration into whether it will go totally green by 2035 while also phasing out fossil fuel usage by 2045. 

potential microgrids

Boston’s Chinatown is among the communities exploring a microgrid through a MassCEC grant. By travelview/Shutterstock.com

“We love all the projects equally,” says Ariel Horowitz, director of technology development and the one who oversees the community microgrid program for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) that commissioned the studies to identify the benefits, barriers, and suggested policy initiatives to bolster a microgrid market in Massachusetts. “There are a wide variety of communities that are eligible and the question of which types of projects will go forward is part of our study.”

The microgrid projects last year won grants of $75,000 from the MassCEC to undertake the feasibility studies.

See details about the 14 microgrid projects here.

In a talk with Microgrid Knowledge, Horowitz said that the state has a growing base of distributed solar power and that microgrid program is designed to leverage investment in clean energy resources and to increase resiliency. Massachusetts has had success with previous microgrids, namely those linked to hospitals and universities.

Microgrid Institute is undertaking three of the 14 feasibility studies.

Those analysis will examine a number of factors that include communities’ requirements for resiliency and clean energy, all relative to the energy loads that must be served. And they will look at the technical, policy and market hurdles that might stand in the way while ultimately providing a cost-benefit analysis.

“What can be done to make projects viable?” asks Michael Burr, who is the director of the Microgrid Institute, in a conversation with Microgrid Knowledge. “It varies from project-to-project. In some deals, the resiliency requirements are very clear and the benefits are very strong.

“In other projects, economics play a big role — where communities economic needs are bigger than their resiliency needs,” he adds. “Microgrids avoid outages and downtime means money. The higher the cost of experiencing an outage, the easier case it is to make for a microgrid.”

Specifically, the Microgrid Institute is working with S&C Electric to examine three potential microgrids in the Eversource and National Grid service territories. The projects would be for the city of Pittsfield, the town of Palmer and the city of Boston.

Resiliency ranks high

As for Pittsfield, Burr says that the project is focusing on solar photovoltaic resources. It is a 2.9 MW solar project, designed for resiliency to city keep the lights on and the air conditioners running during heat waves and other extreme weather-related events.

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“The proposed microgrid in downtown Pittsfield would help facilitate more renewable electricity generation and energy storage, while providing backup power for critical facilities in the event of a grid outage,” says Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts, in an interview with Microgrid Knowledge. “Microgrids are one important tool to transition our cities and towns toward clean, renewable energy.”

The town of Palmer would tap into hydro and other new generation assets for resiliency, says Burr. In that case, Thorndike Energy owns the hydro assets — the same ones that the town wants to use in coordination with a potential microgrid. It’s about using local, renewable energy resources to power the town of Palmer, he adds.

The third project is for the city of Boston and more specifically for the Boston Planning and Developing Agency in the city’s seaport district. It includes the headquarters and a couple buildings owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority, as well as some commercial facilities — the biggest of which is the Innovation and Design building. Similar to Pittsfield project, the seaport district microgrid would include rooftop solar panels and a microgrid to bring resiliency, Burr says.

Just how feasible?

The feasibility studies have six prongs. The first task is to work with the community to assess its requirements for resiliency and clean energy, including a microgrid. The second one is to look at the energy loads and what energy supplies may be available to meet those needs. And the third task is to provide the technical design and the preliminary cost estimates.

Step four provides a close examination of the viability factors — the commercial, regulatory, legal issues that must get resolved before any project could get stated. It looks at who the customers are and how those customers would pay for the project, as well as how the microgrid would operate in concert with the utility. And step five provides the ultimate cost-benefit comparison, looking at each project and each factor on an apples-to-apples basis.

The final step, task six, brings it all together in a final report. It explains the findings and makes recommendations, which encompasse the regulatory and market issues that may impede communities from installing resilient systems.

Burr says that three potential microgrids that he is examining are in phase four.

“Investments in renewable energy can improve resiliency if they are paired with microgrid technologies and energy storage systems,” says Burr. “By taking a systematic and objective approach to evaluating community needs and options, communities can be confident in decisions to invest in local energy infrastructure.”

New to microgrid world of technologies? Learn the basics at About Microgrids.

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