Building a Hurricane-Ready Microgrid

It was a full moon when Frank Sinatra’s hometown was struck by a hurricane named Sandy in October 2012. High tides combined with the storm surge to flood his birthplace at 415 Monroe Street in Hoboken, New Jersey, under several feet of water. The floodwaters knocked out power to more than 90 percent of the city for more than a week, and to many areas for more than two weeks. “We lost almost all ability to function in a regular capacity,” says Caleb Stratton, principal planner for the City of Hoboken.

“Our communications infrastructure in the city is entirely dependent on energy,” says Stratton. “You had communications in written form for days,” even though Hoboken is just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Meanwhile, food rotted on the shelves, medicine spoiled in pharmacies, and a city of 52,000 people huddled in the dark.

PSE&G, one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the country and the oldest and largest in the state, has already made significant investments to harden the grid in Hoboken. For example, PSE&G is raising the city’s three electrical substations onto elevated platforms to bring them above the flood zone—the city’s main risk from coastal hurricanes and other storms that push the Atlantic and the Hudson into the city’s streets. But the City of Hoboken is exploring the possibility of going further and building a microgrid for the community “to provide safety and support services to critical facilities and the most vulnerable residents,” should the broader grid go down, Stratton says.

Riding out a hurricane

Hoboken and its partners plan to provide a resilient electric distribution system for public facilities like hospitals and schools, and even for “a pharmacy or a grocery store or fire suppression systems, or elevators,” Stratton explains. Hoboken’s pursuit of a microgrid is integral to what he calls “the shelter-in-place strategy,” needed because people in Hoboken can’t leave the worst-hit areas, as happens when hurricanes strike most coastal communities. “For us to evacuate in a hurricane is pretty challenging because many of the residents do not have vehicles,” explains Stratton. “More than 50 percent of our residents commute to work via public transit,” which the flood knocked out.

But Hoboken is unusual in another respect, and that defined the solution. “The first floor of most of the city is vulnerable, but the upper floors are better constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds or coastal storm surge than a typical detached single-story home,” Stratton says. “So you have people unable to evacuate, and facilities that can house people during the worst of the storm.” A microgrid therefore seemed a logical component to a sheltering-in-place approach. Accordingly, Hoboken set about trying “to figure out how to keep the lights on and not be so exposed to risk.”

Planning began as Hoboken was still drying out. “An opportunity became available to work with the Department of Energy and Sandia National Laboratory,” says Stratton. Sandia, which has deep experience designing microgrids for U.S. military bases, was already working on a 100-MW microgrid design for New Jersey Transit, and funded a feasibility study for Hoboken. The city signed a memorandum of understanding to pursue a microgrid with the U.S. Department of Energy, PSE&G, and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU). “Superstorm Sandy had devastating effects on many towns in New Jersey,” says Michael Winka, a senior policy advisor at the NJBPU, the state’s regulatory agency. “The State is working with municipalities statewide, both small towns and cities like Hoboken, to improve resiliency to major storms.”

Image courtesy of Luigi Novi – Wikimedia.

Pioneering at the distribution edge

Sandia’s extensive study designed the architecture of the system, which links 55 separate facilities, and identified its parameters, costs, and constraints. The innovative project design proposal has caught the attention of the public, with broad coverage by the New Jersey press and even Scientific American. Sandia provided the other stakeholders with a 200-page document this past September. That’s when the cutting-edge nature of Hoboken’s microgrid really became apparent, and they needed help.

Many municipal microgrids focus on the public buildings—city offices, police, fire, ambulance, hospital, and schools. But Hoboken realized that to truly shelter in place, they’d also need working gas stations, and supermarkets, and pharmacies. And that would require involving select private-sector businesses in the City’s microgrid plan. “Building a community microgrid is much more than a technical challenge,” explains Leia Guccione, a manager with RMI’s electricity practice. “There are regulatory and financial challenges that need to be solved as well.”

Moreover, the design needed some reimagining before it could work for a municipality. “The city wasn’t able to spend $60 million for an asset that was used potentially one time every four years,” says Stratton. “To finance the microgrid, it needs to operate for non-emergency purposes, as well, to monetize some of the resiliency benefits.” In other words, the microgrid needed to operate and generate revenue at times other than when it would be called upon in emergencies.

“The original design did not have a revenue stream,” explains Ross Guttromson, the project manager of the study and the manager of electric power systems research at Sandia National Laboratories. Because of his position, he understands better than most that, while microgrids can sell power to the market on a day-to-day basis, a lot of complexity is entailed “to go from a less-efficient distributed system to a much-more-efficient system that can create” the revenue to defray its own costs.

Speeding progress at eLab Accelerator

Hoboken first tried to tackle these issues by bringing together industry professionals at a symposium in November. To overcome stubborn obstacles and speed progress, they then turned to RMI’s second annual Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) Accelerator at Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah. eLab Accelerator is an intensive, invitation-only, four-day boot camp for electricity innovation. The Hoboken team joined eleven other diverse project teams intent on making change at the electric grid’s distribution edge. Each team spent their days in intense working sessions alongside industry-expert faculty, and benefited from experienced facilitators from RMI and Reos Partners.

“We applied for Accelerator because we knew that there were substantial issues that needed to be resolved, that were not simple, that required time dedicated at one table with all these different stakeholders,” says Stratton, who was the team champion at the event. The team that traveled to Accelerator included Stratton, from the City of Hoboken; Guttromson, from DOE’s Sandia lab; Winka, from the NJBPU; Adam Zellner, president of Greener by Design; Alex Magallon, from PSE&G; and Joe Sullivan, from Concord Engineering. “The team accomplished a lot,” says RMI’s Guccione, who was the team’s facilitator. “That’s in part because we had exactly the right people to deal with all of these multifaceted questions.”


The difficulties of a trailblazing design

Creating a workable, resilient design that would function in a wider blackout and provide revenue at other times proved a tough nut to crack. There are “problems that have to be overcome, and then there’s an opportunity as well,” Guttromson says. “The world is changing. Let’s figure out a business case that works so that we can start duplicating it.”

Figuring out that business case—and the microgrid design to support it—proved a team effort. “The answer to that question from all six of us would have been different” had they worked independently, says Stratton. “And not because we disagreed. There’s simply a different approach and design philosophy.” But, at Accelerator, “by all of us answering that question in concert, we were able to distill out the areas that we were in agreement, we were able to resolve areas where we were in disagreement, and we were able to make key assumptions together.”

Other considerations affected the design as well. “When Sandia finished their study, there were some fairly substantial questions that related to the regulatory ability to proceed with PSE&G and the Board of Public Utilities,” explains Stratton. Many of these issues were around utility rights of way, Winka explains, “especially through connecting private-sector and public-sector structures.” Moreover, explains Sullivan, Hoboken is a “city with major embedded electrical infrastructure and any solution needed to include the maximum use” of what is already built. What structures will the microgrid share with PSE&G’s larger grid, if any? And who would own, operate, and be liable for shared structures? “Our facilitator, Leia, has such a command of microgrid development in general that she was able to focus questions for us in a way that made our team think about the solution differently,” says Stratton.

Coming out of Accelerator, an actionable design and some clearly defined questions were ready to be taken to the boards and elected leaders of the team participants. “The team left Accelerator with a vision for a microgrid that accounts for every stakeholder in the proposed solution,” says Guccione. Guttromson summed it up this way: “It creates an environment that can be acted upon. It’s something that carries weight; it’s very useful.” According to Winka, “the development of this project was enhanced beyond where we were individually.”

Time is of the essence for the Hoboken microgrid. A Sandy may not come this year, but in the long run another is inevitable, and when it comes Hoboken wants to be ready. As team member Adam Zellner told Scientific American, “they can’t afford not to act.”

“We needed to formalize a business model that worked for the public utilities and for the city,” says Stratton. “We hoped to develop that at Accelerator, and we achieved that goal.” Or as Frank Sinatra would say, the team is beginning to see the light—and when the next blackout comes, hopefully Hoboken will, too.

First image courtesy of Garrett Nantz / Second image courtesy of Luigi Novi – Wikimedia.Third image courtesy of Shutterstock.