Scaling Back: Distributed Power to the Rescue

Hurricane Sandy damage underscores the need for distributed power. Credit: Ann Oro, FlickrCC
Damage from Hurricane Sandy underscores the need for distributed power. Credit: Ann Oro, FlickrCC

At its peak, Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to more than 8.5 million homes and businesses across 21 states. Residents of parts of New York City, Long Island and the Jersey Shore struggled for months to access funding to start rebuilding, or, in some cases, to access reliable power. Power transmitted from far-off generating stations and carried on mostly overhead wires is a century-old technology, and, in the era of climate change, not a very dependable one.

In the wake of that superstorm, and in light of other intense storms to come, many are wondering if there isn’t a better way to provide electricity. Connecticut, whose coastline was hit by Sandy, is considering a new energy strategy that will employ what’s called distributed generation and micro-grids to reduce reliance on the existing electricity grid.

A few weeks before Sandy hit, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and his Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), released a draft energy strategy that would enable residents to buy cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy. Most controversially, it relies heavily on increasing the use of natural gas. It also includes a plan to build a network of micro-grids, with distributed generation as the power supply.

“Distributed generation means having smaller scale plants at the community level that might be gas turbines or fuel cells [that are] wired in such a way that when there’s a storm or a hurricane and the big grid goes down, they would be island-able—isolated from the big grid—and able to stay up,” says DEEP Commissioner Dan Etsy.

Esty says micro-grids could support critical facilities like hospitals, police and fire stations, or even basic consumer services such as a supermarket, a gas station, a bank and a pharmacy in any given area. Most of the time distributed generation would operate within the larger grid, but these micro-grids would provide more resilience in the face of storms or cyber threats.

Joel Gordes is a member of the Connecticut Energy Advisory Board, and says the first step in designing a micro-grid is increasing efficiency. “The first thing you have to do is look at all the electric loads—all the appliances, all the homes—and try to make them as efficient as possible,” he says. He explains that efficiency lowers the cost and “reduces the size of the generation that would be needed to power them up which saves you even more money.”

While Gordes supports the state’s draft energy strategy, he says it gives short shrift to cyber security concerns, which he believes is a big reason to move toward distributed generation and a good argument for renewables.

DEEP Commissioner Esty says solar and wind can’t be used to power micro-grids because they are intermittent energy sources, but Gordes says they should not be excluded, as research is ongoing to improve the storage capacity of these two renewables

In Rockaway Beach, Queens, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, local resident Joe Longo says he, his wife and infant daughter were out of power for more than a month after Sandy hit. He’d like to see renewable energy used to power local generation, noting that, in the Rockaways, “We get a breeze that comes right through here every day, right off the ocean. And solar power is also something to look into, because we have the sun with no obstructions on us all day long.”

In Connecticut in 2012, the legislature approved $15 million for pilot projects; the department received three dozen proposals—a number it considers an indication of high interest in the concept—from communities, developers and utilities around the state. Proposals include using all manner of fuels to power micro-grids, including diesel, co-generation (combined heat and power), fuel cells, natural gas, solar, propane and an anaerobic digester. Tweed New Haven airport also proposed energy efficiency along with solar PV and co-generation to power the entire (admittedly small) facility. Other projects would power emergency facilities like police and fire stations, hospitals, basic survival services (grocery, pharmacy), college dorms, senior centers and more. DEEP plans to have the first 10 to12 projects online by 2014.

MELINDA TUHUS is a freelance environmental journalist based in Connecticut.