Preventing Future Blackouts: A recent federal report by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force cites microgrid systems as a means of mitigating the sprawling impacts of disasters fueled by climate change. Image: ThinkStock
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, when most of lower Manhattan was a sea of darkness, New York University's Washington Square campus shone like a beacon in the night.
"The entire neighborhood was dark -- everything. And then there was us," said John Bradley, NYU's assistant vice president of sustainability, energy and technical services. "It really was a little surreal."
Swaths of Manhattan below 36th Street were powerless after Sandy hit, due to pre-emptive shutdowns and severe flooding that knocked out a power station in the East Village. But key buildings on NYU's campus stayed alight thanks to a self-sufficient microgrid system, designed to distribute electricity independently of Consolidated Edison Inc.'s main grid network.
A 13.4-megawatt combined heat and power (CHP) plant -- made up of two giant natural gas-fired turbines housed below Mercer Street -- powers the university's 26 electrically connected buildings. It also provides hot and cold water for up to 40 buildings by harnessing waste heat that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The efficient CHP facility produces 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than the oil-fired power plant it replaced.
In response to Superstorm Sandy, which made landfall last Oct. 30, leaders at all levels of the U.S. government have identified microgrids like the one at NYU as key components to improving energy resiliency on the East Coast. A recent federal report by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force cites microgrid systems as a means of mitigating the sprawling impacts of disasters fueled by climate change.
There's no official definition of a microgrid, but they're generally considered to be self-contained grid systems equipped with on-site power generation, like a CHP plant or a renewable resource like wind or solar. As isolated entities, microgrids can keep operating -- and, in NYU's case, keep students safe and power flowing to research projects -- even in the event of a large-scale power outage.
According to Navigant Research, North America will lead the microgrid market through 2020 with nearly 6 gigawatts of capacity, the equivalent of six large nuclear power plants.
A number of projects are already underway. Last month, the Department of Energy announced it will partner with the state of New Jersey, NJ Transit and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to build a microgrid that will power the transit system among Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken as well as critical stations and maintenance facilities.
"This first-of-its-kind electrical microgrid will supply highly reliable power during storms and help keep our public transportation systems running during natural times of disaster, which is critical not only to our economy, but also emergency and evacuation-related activities," Gov. Chris Christie (R) said at the announcement.
Connecticut, the first state to launch a microgrid program, awarded $18 million to nine microgrid projects across the state in July. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) plans to commit an additional $30 million in the next two years for additional microgrid sites.
New York's Moreland Commission, launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), has also expressed support for establishing strategic microgrid systems following Sandy. In New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency postmortem report on Sandy, the mayor specifically called for public and private partners to scale up distributed generation systems and microgrids, with the goal of reaching 800 MW of installed capacity by 2030.
The New York State Smart Grid Consortium (NYSSGC), a public-private partnership, is helping coordinate utilities, technology providers, policymakers and universities in the implementation of microgrid systems at various locations in New York City and upstate New York. James Gallagher, executive director of NYSSGC, praised the mayor's focus on modernizing the grid in the face of increasingly frequent and intense weather events. Over the last century, three of the four worst events to hit the New York grid system have taken place in the last two years, he said.