Space & Innovation

Cities Are Building Disaster-Proof Green Microgrids

Smaller systems are tapping green power to keep essentials running during outages and storms.

What does a Colorado brewery, a California desert town and a New Jersey suburb have in common? They're all using microgrids to become less reliant on power supplies that can crash during peak demand, or when floods or hurricanes hit.

These microgrids are actually interconnected energy sources that can switch on or off from the utility power grid depending on what's happening.

When energy is scarce, expensive or non-existent, the microgrids make their own electricity to keep essential services running. In addition to emergency backup systems and solar panels, microgrids deploy special software and electronics to merge power streams and keep the lights on.

"Some people are driven by resiliency and that could come from the storms we've seen," said Kaitlyn Bunker, a senior associate the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank based in Aspen, Colo. "Others are driven by cost."

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City leaders in Hoboken, N.J, decided they needed some kind of backup plan after floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy knocked out their power for weeks in 2012. The town got grant funds and help from Sandia National Laboratories that identified 55 key buildings that could be kept running. That includes police, fire, emergency services and the hospital in the town of 55,000 people across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

After several years of engineering studies, the Hoboken microgrid is slowly coming together and is now installing back-up power generators, according to Caleb Stratton, a planner for the city of Hoboken.

"There are still regulatory and financial details that need to be worked out to create a connected system, but I'm optimistic in next 20 years we will implement the project, Stratton said. "The effects will provide critical services during the most fragile times."

Other communities that have opted for microgrids include Fort Collins, Colo. Here, a $6.3 million project by the U.S. Department of Energy includes power generation capacity from the New Belgium brewery, Colorado State University and the local city and county buildings. New Belgium has covered the brewery's roof with solar panels. It also digests waste from beer fermentation to produce methane, which is burned to make electricity.

The goal is to reduce energy use by 30 percent, while relying on new renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaic panels, fuel cells and thermal storage.

The Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif., has its own microgrid that saves $100,000 yearly in power costs. So does the University of California, San Diego, and Princeton University, two schools that are now nearly independent from local utilities.

These community-based microgrids are one step beyond a home-based grid, and some of them come with bureaucratic problems that remain.

In September 2013, lightning knocked out 19 power poles bringing electricity from San Diego to the small desert community of Borrego Springs, Calif., leaving 3,000 residents in the dark. After the disruption, the local utility, SDG&E, rerouted power from a local solar farm and installed diesel generators and batteries to keep the power on in Borrego Springs. That started the town's microgrid.

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While the microgrid hasn't lowered resident's electric bills - which can reach $1,000 per month when daily temperatures top 120 degrees - it has provided more reliable power and fewer outages.

Still, town resident Sylvana Meeks wishes that the big solar farm operated by the utility would reduce the community's killer power bills.

"I know we are getting there, and we are trying to improve," said Meeks, the town's unofficial mayor. "There's still a ways to go. I wish that the solar arrays would be beneficial to our town."

Meeks, a realtor, has lived in Borrego Springs for 30 years and says she's finally considering an option that many of her neighbors have already deployed: rooftop solar panels.

"It's just a couple of months in the summer you have to suffer," said Meeks. "We conserve and we have an adobe brick home that's well insulated. But we're starting to talk about solar."

Photo: A woman stands next to a National Guard vehicle on a street in Hoboken, N.J., after Superstorm Sandy flooded the city in 2012. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Joseph Davis/Released WATCH VIDEO: Can Nanotechnology Turn Windows Into Solar Panels?