Few New Jersians can forget October 29, 2012, when Super Storm Sandy plunged a huge swathe of the Garden State into darkness. By the following morning, almost two and a half million people were without electricity. Many remained that way for several days and some for well over a week. But at Princeton University, the lights barely flickered. Served by a microgrid supplied by a combined heat and power plant nearby, Princeton had power back on in 20 minutes, enabling it to serve as a refuge for those in surrounding communities as well as its own students.
Princeton remains a microgrid leader nationally, but much has happened in the world of alternative energy in the four years since the Super Storm hit. Increasingly, colleges and universities, cities, medical campuses, and communities are turning to the technologies of microgrids and district energy to build energy resiliency in the face of more frequent and stronger storms, while saving money and cutting carbon emissions through greater energy efficiency and cleaner fuels.
With the tenth highest electricity prices in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Jersey communities and other entities have much to gain by decreasing their reliance on the traditional electric grid. Last month, the state advanced those opportunities with the announcement of a $2 million program to support up to ten microgrid feasibility projects across the state. To be eligible, applicants for up to $200,000 each must be municipal or county agencies, or other government entities that own or manage critical facilities. Once the initial feasibility study component of the new program is complete, the state intends to award additional funds for detailed engineering design for new microgrids.
New Jersey joins California and Washington in states that issued microgrid deployment plans this summer. Nearby Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York did so previously, with New York’s $40 million New York Prize being the most ambitious – and also a response to the tremendous disruption caused by Super Storm Sandy.
Even more than the reliability and resilience benefits they provide during and in the wake of ferocious storms, microgrids paired with district energy and CHP systems are valued for the community benefits they supply on blue-sky days throughout the year. In addition to being able to provide power for critical community services and facilities when the grid goes down, these technologies are well-positioned to save money for their owners and surrounding communities 24/7. Operators of microgrids increase their power output when the market dictates – that is, when they can generate electricity cheaper than the cost of buying power from the grid. By generating power and minimizing demand on the grid during peak times, microgrids help reduce the need for more utility generation, transmission and distribution assets – reducing costs that are typically passed on to all ratepayers. Conversely, when the price of grid power drops, they decrease their own power output and purchase more from the grid.
Microgrids tied to CHP are climate change solutions as well. CHP systems can be twice as efficient as central power plants because they capture the heat that is a byproduct of electricity generation and use it for efficient space heating. This reduces net air emissions, as well as cutting the cost of both heat and power. For example, although the efficiency of a utility electric plant is typically less than 45 percent of the input fuel energy, Princeton’s plant is in the 80 percent range. While providing the 150-building campus of nearly 8,000 students with efficient heating, cooling, and electricity, the university’s district energy and CHP plant reduce carbon emissions by 27,900 tons annually – equivalent to taking 4,600 cars off the road.
With the fourth anniversary of Sandy looming, New Jersey has raised the profile of district energy, CHP and microgrid technology. Through the state’s newly-announced feasibility grant program, we’re eager to see other campuses and communities across the Garden State shift to a new paradigm of energy independence, resiliency, and sustainability.
Rob Thornton is a 30-year veteran of the clean energy industry and serves as President & CEO of the International District Energy Association, an industry non-profit formed in 1909 that represents the interests of more than 2,100 members worldwide.
Edward T. Borer is the energy plant manager for Princeton University. He is actively involved in campus energy and carbon emissions reduction efforts. He has over 30 years of experience in the power industry, is a registered professional engineer, and holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering as well as the CEM, CEP, and LEED-AP Certifications. He has leadership roles in the International District Energy Association and New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability. He is a co-founder of the Microgrid Resources Coalition and has provided energy resiliency briefings to US House Representatives, FERC Commissioners, and various state level legislators. He speaks regularly on energy topics, has published articles in trade magazines, and peer-reviewed journals as well as a book chapter on combined heat and power.