How to Avoid Storm Blackouts? Colleges Go Big With Microgrids

Tech-savvy universities are leading the way with innovative ideas to make their campuses energy independent.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —The odor of oil permeates part of this decades-old power plant, located a couple blocks from a zany, modern, multi-colored building by architect Frank Gehry.

MIT’s four-story plant has slashed its use of oil and plans to eliminate it. By 2020, as part of an expansion, it will use low-sulfur oil only for emergencies and rely instead on less-polluting natural gas. It aims to meet all of the university’s growing energy needs for the next quarter century.

“We’ll be capable of operating off the grid,” says MIT’s Don Holmes of the Central Utilities Plant, which provides electricity as well as heating and cooling. “We’re looking at the new plant as a bridge to the future.”

MIT is not alone. Some of the world’s top engineering powerhouses are showcasing ultra-efficient, innovative ways to produce their own energy. In the last year, several have unveiled plans to expand or build new campus plants, and Stanford’s cutting-edge system uses mostly solar power—not fossil fuel.

They’re seeking eco-friendly freedom from the central power grid, which can be vulnerable to extreme weather or cyber attacks. While colleges have long embraced on-site power plants, considered microgrids, their interest accelerated after major storms—notably Sandy in 2012—knocked out power for extended periods for millions of people.

“There’s an emerging movement in higher education toward resiliency,” says Julie Newman, director of MIT’s Office of Sustainability. She says MIT’s plant expansion, which intends to double its capacity, will enable the university to “withstand anything that happens around us.”

When Sandy darkened parts of the mid-Atlantic, campus plants became beacons. In New Jersey, Princeton University went dark for 20 minutes until it regained power long enough to restart its gas-fired turbine. The turbine kept on the campus’ lights and heating. Similarly, in Manhattan, New York University’s cogeneration plant partially powered the campus during the city-wide blackout.

So colleges, some with government support, are stepping up their efforts. California is funding a Microgrid Automation Project at Las Positas Community College that aims to serve as a blueprint for integrating solar power.

In upstate New York, Union College broke ground last year on a gas-fueled cogeneration plant that’s expected—when it goes online in July—to provide 75 percent of the campus’ electricity and nearly all its heating and cooling.

Microgrids Get Big Push 

“Microgrids are a global phenomenon,” Peter Asmus writes in the latest microgrid report by consulting firm Navigant Research, forecasting their capacity could increase at a compound annual rate of about 20 percent.

“Historically, the biggest microgrid market has been universities and hospitals,” Asmus, principal research analyst, says in an interview. His report expects even greater growth for campus and institutional microgrids, jumping from just over 200 megawatts of capacity in 2015 to more than 1,500 megawatts in 2024.

Microgrids “build in resiliency” and since they can operate independent of the central power grid, Asmus says, they might stop a cyber attack from darkening an entire city.

In fact, veteran journalist Ted Koppel, who wrote the best-selling book “Lights Out,” calls microgrids a “terrific idea” for minimizing the effects of a potential cyber attack on the central grid. (Nat Geo talks to Koppel about whether the U.S. is prepared.)

While cyber terrorism is a concern, senior research analyst Meegan Kelly says colleges are motivated to produce their own power more by the increasing “duration and frequency” of grid outages.

“They’re like a little city,” says Kelly of the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy, a think tank. She says colleges are ideal candidates for microgrids, because they have round-the-clock energy needs and long-term investors.

She says U.S. microgrids, about half of which are fueled by natural gas, can be very energy efficient, because many use one fuel to generate two types of energy—electrical and thermal. These cogeneration or combined heat and power (CHP) plants recover s turbine’s exhaust heat, which is wasted in conventional power plants, and uses the steam for heating and cooling.

As a result, Kelly says CHP systems operate at much higher efficiencies, of at least 60 percent, and can cut emissions of greenhouse gases. She says they can help states meet their emission targets, under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and enable universities to reach their own sustainability goals.

Some campus microgrids go further by incorporating renewable power from solar panels or wind turbines that’s stored in batteries. The University of California, San Diego’s plant, which can generate more than 90 percent of campus power, has gas generators that work in tandem with rooftop solar and molten-carbonate fuel cells for energy storage.

“The trend is CHP with solar and lithium-ion batteries,” says Asmus, adding the ideal scenario diversifies fuel sources to reduce risk. He says while natural gas prices are currently law, future anti-fracking efforts could cut supply and increase costs.

Stanford, in northern California, may get the gold star for innovation. Last April, it announced it had replaced its 30-year-old, gas-fired cogeneration plant with a first-of-its-kind system that relies on solar power and more efficient heat recovery.

The university reached a deal with Sunpower to buy the output of a huge off-site solar farm, which is slated for completion later this year. The farm will produce about half of Stanford’s electricity, and the rest will come from either on-campus solar panels or California’s power grid. Stanford estimates two-thirds of its electricity will come from renewables and its carbon emissions will fall 68 percent—the equivalent of taking 32,000 cars off the road.

As part of its new SESI ( Stanford Energy System Innovations), it built an on-campus facility to provide more than 90 percent of campus heating. The facility captures almost two-thirds of the waste heat from the campus cooling system and uses it to produce hot water for heating. To convert from a steam- to hot-water-based system, the university replaced 22 miles of underground pipes and retrofitted 155 buildings.

Still, Stanford estimates that SESI will save the university $420 million over 35 years, compared to a cogeneration option, and will cut water usage about 15 percent. It stemmed from a 2008 Energy and Climate Plan that involved its entire community, including faculty members who focus on the environment and sustainable energy.

“This system can be a model for others equally concerned about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and willing to make an investment in the future,” Stanford President John Hennessy said in announcing SESI, calling it “a transformational energy system for the 21st century.”

MIT Looks to Efficiency

On the other U.S. coast, MIT choose a different course a decade ago when it was thinking about the future of its aging cogeneration plant. It decided to expand rather than scrap the facility.

“This is the best solution as we stand now,” says Holmes, MIT’s director of maintenance and utilities, adding he sees natural gas as a “bridge fuel.”

The university plans to replace its single 20-year-old natural gas turbine with a new one, install a second turbine, and complete upgrades to its chilled water plant. By doubling its turbine capacity to 42 megawatts, it plans to meet all campus energy needs.

MIT says the two new turbines will be cleaner and more efficient. It expects the university will use an increasing amount of energy, especially as it adds a mammoth new center for nanotechnology, but the upgraded plant will still emit 10 percent fewer greenhouse gases in 2020 (than in 2014) and will help the university meet its commitment to cut overall emissions 32 percent by 2030.

Newman, campus sustainability director, says the university plans other steps to cut emissions. She says it will soon start reviewing ways to produce renewable energy on-site or off-site. Currently, the campus doesn’t use solar power, except for lighting the dome. In January, MIT published it first comprehensive campus greenhouse gas inventory to help guide future plans.

In the meantime, MIT says its upgraded cogeneration plant will offer the campus protection from extreme weather, some of which is exacerbated by global warming. The turbines can be started without external grid power, and key components will be sited above the anticipated 500-year flood level, enabling the plant to operate even during the worst of storms.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.


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