Pittsburgh Becoming Laboratory For Microgrid Technology

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There is a lot of talk about grid resiliency in the US these days. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has declared that coal and nuclear are essential to the resiliency of the American power grid, but as Hurricane Maria proved beyond a reasonable doubt when it ripped through Puerto Rico last month, a grid whose main transmission lines have been destroyed has no resiliency at all. Following in Maria’s wake, microgrid technology has suddenly become a hot topic of discussion, most of all in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

microgrid technologyOnce the standard bearer for America’s steel industry when its blast furnaces were visible for miles around at night, Pittsburgh has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Until recently, it had become the center of what has come to be called the Rust Belt, but no more. Pittsburgh is rapidly becoming Silicon Valley East. Apple, Google, and Uber have opened technology centers there.

That has sparked an increased interest in sustainability. Mayor Bill Peduto was one of 100 Americans who journeyed to Bonn, Germany, last week to attend the COP23 climate conference. Peduto’s trip was a poke in the eye to the alleged president, who blustered earlier this year that he represented “Pittsburgh not Paris” when he refused to abide by America’s carbon reduction commitments made in Paris in 2015. By implication, Peduto’s trip makes it crystal clear that Trump does not represent his city in any manner, shape, or form.

Pitt Ohio trucking in nearby Harmar is a good example of what is going on with microgrids in and around the city. The company has its own microgrid designed by Gregory Reed, head of the energy program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering. It gathers electricity from a wind turbine and solar panels installed on the premises to meet the electrical needs of the business. Any excess is stored by an onsite battery that keeps the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

The system cost $325,000, but Jim Maug, director of building maintenance, says, “We’re anticipating about a seven to eight-year return on investment.” After that, the company’s cost of energy will be near zero except for routine maintenance. LED lighting is used throughout the facility and all the company’s forklifts are electric.

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A local microgrid is a wonderful thing, but that’s not the whole story. What Ohio Pitt did caught the attention of the city government. Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer, tells NPR, “The microgrid technology we’ve seen is a real opportunity to start to integrate renewable assets … but also increase the resiliency and redundancy in the grid.”

He says the city is now helping to coordinate advances in microgrid technology between the University of Pittsburgh, a local utility company, and other private area companies. Other cities now see Pittsburgh as a microgrid model, he added. After Hurricane Maria, Ervin said his counterpart in San Juan, Puerto Rico, asked his advice about how to incorporate microgrids into the local utility grid to make it more resilient when storms sweep over the island in the future.

Gregory Reed says, “This is really a first step in the direction we want to take for larger scale installations.” He wants to expanding the thinking behind the Ohio Pitt microgrid to whole neighborhoods, then link those microgrids together to create a flexible network. That idea will require creative thinking by utility companies, many of whom see distributed grids and renewable energy as threats to their business model.

What Pittsburgh is doing has been noticed by political leaders in other countries. Last year, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, told an audience, “There’s this city in Pennsylvania who’s starting to do some really cool things, have you heard of them? They’re called Pittsburgh.”

Speaking of conventional wisdom in the utility industry, on November 10, the Heartland Institute, a captive organization funded and controlled by the Koch brothers, published an editorial screed entitled “The Market For Electricity Is Rigged.” At first blush, editorial writer Donn Dears is 100% correct. The utility industry is set up and operated primarily to enrich the investors in power companies, but Dears’ complaint is about something else entirely.

“The preferential dispatch system used by many RTO/ISO grid operators favors wind and solar to the exclusion of critical baseload power from fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Preferential dispatching is destructive because it results in the closure of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. It could also be called discriminatory because it discriminates against baseload power. The situation today is serious. It is calamitous because perfectly good nuclear power plants are being forced to close as the result of the preferential dispatch system.”

It is an article of faith among conservatives reactionaries that any and all government regulations must be done away with to free business from the shackles imposed by clueless regulators. But Dears stands that argument on its head as he rails against the damage done to nuclear power plants in energy markets that have been deregulated.

He complains, “Deregulated markets use the lowest variable cost when selecting suppliers of electricity, where the lowest variable cost will virtually always be from wind or solar plants because they have no fuel costs. This results in wind and solar being selected over coal, natural gas or nuclear power plants whenever wind or solar generated electricity is available.” So, renewables enjoy an unfair advantage because they have no fuel costs? That is quite a deep insight, Dears.

If microgrid technology has any hope of widespread adoption, it will have to overcome determined opposition from traditional utility operators who believe they are entitled to enjoy their cozy monopoly status in perpetuity and should be exempt from any and all innovation. Those entrenched interests may soon be in for a rude awakening.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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