Lessons learned since darkness descended on central New Jersey in the wake of Sandy’s wrecking winds include at least one tiny triumph: Princeton University’s campus stayed lit by tapping its own smaller version of the power grid – a “microgrid.”
Microgrids were a hot topic among some policymakers even before Sandy hit. Backup generators may fail to start, run out of fuel, or break down. But microgrids like the one at Princeton act as a highly efficient, miniature version of the big power grid, operate 24/7, and tap into reliable natural gas-fired generators or perhaps wind turbines or even solar panels with battery storage.
Spurred by hurricane Irene and a bad snowstorm last October, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have had teams researching energy options to hedge against widespread grid outages from increasingly violent storms.
Microgrids, they found, can supply power to critical shelters, hospitals, and city centers even if the grid is out for days on end. But they cost a lot to set up and legal barriers have slowed development.
Hence, few true microgrids exist today. Most state laws are geared to limit competition to big utilities. Moreover, microgrids are expensive. The early-stage research costs alone for a four megawatt microgrid – which could power a town center, for example – could be between $800,000 and $2 million, according to Pareto Energy, a Washington-based microgrid company.
Nationally, there’s a push, too. The Department of Defense has at least a dozen microgrids already up and running on military bases with another half dozen pilot projects going. The Department of Energy reports a handful of other microgrid sites under development.
Aside from the benefits of “islanding,” microgrids also offer greater efficiency. The loss of energy as heat during transmission over long distances means grid power is about 40 percent efficient, while microgrids often exceed 80 percent, researchers say.
“Given the widespread power loss for such a long period of time in New Jersey alone, microgrid systems and energy-storage systems could play an intricate role in preventing power loss,” says Amanda Scaccianoce, a spokesman for Princeton Power Systems.
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