The concept of living “off the grid” isn’t just for those who want to shrink their environmental footprint.
In the wake of severe storms like Superstorm Sandy and most recently Hurricane Matthew, policymakers and others are looking increasingly to a number of so-called “distributed energy resources” to keep the lights on locally even when Mother Nature delivers devastating blows to utility equipment.
That’s because reliability, as we have traditionally defined it, is no longer enough. Customers are seeking a new level of electric system resiliency during major storms to continue to power their every device and, if outages occur, get power restored as quickly as possible.
In addition to energy sources like solar, government officials are exploring a greater role for microgrids – smaller clusters of energy sources such as fuel cells and small power facilities that can independently energize one or more buildings without a continual tether to the electric grid. For example, Princeton University’s microgrid kept the campus powered up during and after Sandy. Hoboken, meanwhile, has been exploring a microgrid to power critical facilities such as senior citizen apartments, city hall and the local hospital so they can continue to function in severe weather.
PSE&G agrees wholeheartedly with making our electric and gas systems more resilient. With approval of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, we are investing $1.22 billion to harden our infrastructure against destructive storm surges, flooding rains and damaging winds.
Under our Energy Strong program, we are raising and rebuilding 29 switching and substations above new federal flood guidelines to keep them out of harm’s way. By adding redundant electric circuits that serve critical customers like hospitals and water treatment plants, we can keep these vital community facilities running despite storm damage. And we are infusing the network with smarter technology to better monitor system operations and swiftly deploy repair teams. The benefits will be shared by all customers, no matter where they live, how much energy they use or their ability to pay.
The BPU recently announced that it would draft policies to guide development of localized power sources serving municipal centers so that when the next Sandy hits, government services like police, fire, and emergency shelters can continue to function. The aim is to eventually have microgrid pilots in communities that had been devastated by Sandy.
We support the BPU’s plan to carefully assess the role of community microgrids in building greater resiliency, but we also recognize that there are some critical questions that will need to be addressed. For instance, we should ensure that we don’t create a grid that provides better service to some customers at the expense of others. State policies should also recognize operational challenges that, if not handled properly, may put the safety of our customers and employees in jeopardy. As the BPU recognizes, power that traditionally flows from centralized generators to customers is simpler to manage. Power that flows back and forth between a microgrid and the larger distribution grid is more complex and creates difficult technical and regulatory challenges.
We therefore encourage regulators to take a broad approach. For example, NJ Transit and PSE&G are partnering on a microgrid that will keep the trains running for thousands of commuters on one of the Northeast’s key transportation corridors. That kind of investment can serve the public good and makes sense.
The BPU’s stakeholder process should ensure that all players – including New Jersey’s electric utilities — are engaged in that assessment and policy development, as well as any incentive and financing programs.
For decades, we have relied on an electric grid that provides benefits to the greatest number of customers. In my view, that will continue to be the case. At the same time, we owe it to our customers to explore new, more flexible ways of delivering the safe, reliable and resilient energy they expect and deserve.
PSE&G stands ready to work with the BPU and local communities to find the best way to do just that.