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OPINION | Microgrids: A new hope for New Jersey’s energy future

New Jersey begins a new decade aiming to transform into a clean energy economy with a proposed energy master plan shifting our state to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The plan promotes maximizing energy efficiency and conservation, supporting renewable energy sources including solar, battery storage and wind, and reducing peak demand by lowering electric and gas utility consumption by at least 2 percent and 0.75 percent, respectively. An aggressive program to electrify transportation was also signed into law that will put roughly 330,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025. However, communities still face significant energy resiliency challenges that have only increased since Superstorm Sandy. Some municipalities have begun examining and implementing microgrid solutions to great effect, but such programs require in-depth and labor-intensive analysis and planning that may not be feasible for smaller communities without support from state or federal policy and major energy distribution companies.

The Problem of the Two Rs: Reliability versus Resiliency

With these bold and ambitious targets to create a clean energy future, there are still significant challenges that lie ahead to improve our state’s energy infrastructure. The effects of Superstorm Sandy might seem like a remote memory for many New Jerseyans, but there are several lessons that the state has yet to act on to future-proof our grid, one being the distinct roles of energy reliability and resiliency and the complexities and nuances of advancing both. Reliability is when we can throw the switch and know the lights will turn on. Resiliency is the ability to mitigate, survive, and/or recover from high impact threats such as long-term blackouts, severe weather events, cyber-attacks, coordinated physical attacks and elements of warfare that can be employed by terrorist groups and rogue states. To develop a comprehensive threat mitigation strategy, we need uniform policies and procedures with meaningful and enforceable safety standards, which as of yet do not exist.

The issue becomes more complicated because of the various independent nodes that exist in our national power grid and the extremely interconnected nature of critical services like the U.S. military. There are many overlaid and intersecting layers of risk that need solutions to keep pace with the threat environment.

It is no surprise then that the grid and our infrastructure face significant risk from prolonged electrical outages, which, largely due to the rising frequency of extreme weather events, have been steadily increasing since 1995. To address these challenges, several US Federal Agencies, national laboratories and states have advocated for programs that include distributed energy resources and microgrids.

Microgrid diagram

Microgrids are locally distributed systems with control capability that can operate independently from the larger grid. It is a valuable solution for municipalities, but there are challenges, trends, technologies, and the market landscape for microgrid implementation that need to be further explored.

I began to advocate for the microgrid solution following first-hand experience of Superstorm Sandy and the unfortunate aftermath in towns like Hoboken and Seaside Heights. At the time I was helping the City of Hoboken create a master plan to immediately respond to the devastation. Hoboken was overwhelmed by 500 million gallons of brackish water flooding its streets, homes and infrastructure during an extremely stressful couple of weeks that left both citizens and city administrators scrambling for solutions to the storm-damaged infrastructure. The Honorable Mayor Dawn Zimmer along with a team of administrative officials conceived an initial microgrid plan to improve energy availability during emergencies, reduce pressure on the main power grid during peak hours and decrease emissions through the adoption of renewables. The City received a technical assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund the initial analysis for a microgrid project. Sandia National Laboratories conducted the analysis, identifying roughly 55 buildings that were deemed to be critical for a shelter in place scenario and therefore should receive back-up power through a microgrid, including police stations, fire departments, pharmacies, senior facilities, and affordable housing. Hoboken is fortunate to have more resources at its disposal than some smaller cities and townships, and still this plan was only possible with a federal grant.

T&M Associates has since incorporated the future microgrid into the present redesign of Washington Street, which will be the backbone of the network.

What Problems do a Microgrid Solve and is it Right for You?

Business interruption, loss of life, and damage to or loss of infrastructure are just some of the main areas where microgrids are the right solution. The economic impact of Superstorm Sandy neared $30 billion, and more than 2 million households across the state lost power at the time. New Jersey also faces geographical challenges with coastal communities that are increasingly flood-prone and will experience rising sea levels, and therefore need to stormproof utility infrastructure.
Technologies and emerging customer preferences are also causing industry disruption. For instance, new fuel mixes are emerging that replace fossil fuel plants, and grids are being modernized from large centralized generation to smaller de-centralized approaches such as combined heat and power units. Our aging infrastructure does not currently accommodate rapid interest in electric vehicles, time-of-day pricing, and distributed generation resource management software, issues that can be addressed with a microgrid’s local control capabilities.

The microgrid solution is field-proven and scalable to accommodate a variety of needs like power reliability and economic incentives. However, it can be an expensive alternative to other energy solutions and should be carefully evaluated for different communities. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has created a pilot program to assist in the preparation of feasibility studies for Town Center Distributed Energy Resources Microgrid (“TCDER microgrid”) Detailed Design Incentive Programs.

There were 13 communities in N.J. that were awarded grants to study the feasibility of a microgrid.

A TCDER microgrid, for the purpose of this incentive program, is a cluster of critical facilities within a municipal boundary that may also operate as shelter for the public during and after an emergency event or provide services that are essential to function during and after an emergency situation. It could include, but is not limited to, multifamily buildings, hospitals and local or state government critical operations in a relatively small radius. These critical facilities are connected to a single or series of DER technologies that can operate while isolated and islanded from the main grid due to a power outage.

Communities looking to further, design, finance, and procure comprehensive solutions like microgrids require an “all hands-on deck” approach with many stakeholders. It is not the easiest fix but in many cases it is the best one, and I have been excited to help educate more communities and public officials about the many benefits of analyzing risk mitigation. The challenges faced by NJ municipalities can be daunting, but 2020 looks to be a hopeful and novel year to advocate for solutions that address both reliability and resiliency in energy planning.

With great anticipation, in this coming year we will look to NJ electric distribution companies including ACE, JCP&L and PSEG to make investments in additional reliability and redundancy. Our State Legislators will also look to advance the P3 Energy Infrastructure Public-Private Partnerships to torque up private sector investment in energy related improvements, leading to lower energy bills and more resilient infrastructure at critical facilities such as water-treatment plants, hospitals, and government buildings. Energy reliability and resiliency is a daunting two-fold problem that requires innovative solutions like microgrids to make meaningful change, and NJ municipalities cannot face it alone.

Gail Lalla, client manager, T&M Associates.

Gail Lalla is client manager at T&M Associates, a leading national consulting, environmental, engineering, technical services and construction management firm based in Middletown. She has extensive experience leading engineering and architectural teams in Federal, State, and local projects that involve brownfield redevelopment, transportation planning, infrastructure studies and green-building. Her areas of expertise include project management, performance optimization, energy assessments, creation of energy master plans, construction management, and microgrid modeling using toolkits. For more information please visit