Is there a non-micro role on the New Hampshire power grid for microgrids? 

  • Transmission lines lead from unit 1 of Merrimack Station; Wednesday, July 17, 2013.The New England grid is expecting to meet or exceed record energy production on Thursday or Friday.(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)Transmission lines lead from Unit 1 of Merrimack Station in Bow on Wednesday. ALEXANDER COHN

Published: 5/13/2019 4:57:26 PM

It says something about the complexity of the coming energy revolution that lawmakers are trying to figure out how we can do something that tens of thousands of New Hampshire homeowners already do every winter.

I refer to operating microgrids, the techy term for the ability to create your own electricity while disconnected from the power grid.

There’s a non-small chance that you, dear reader, have already microgridded. If during some recent winter a storm knocked out your power and you started up the gas-fired generator so you didn’t have to worry about food spoiling in the fridge, then you were running your own tiny electric grid.

So why does the state legislature need to consider a bill to see if this is feasible?

(A political note: This bill, HB183, has gotten roped into the unrelated but contentious issue of biomass power plants. That’s got nothing to do with microgrids so I will happily ignore it.)

We’re seeing this push because big microgrids – enough to cover, say, all of Concord Hospital or the New England College campus or the New Boston Air Force Station – are a different beast than single-home generators.

Big microgrids using local renewable energy are seen as an important tool to cope with increasing renewable energy and pollution concerns but they cost millions to build and operate. There are plenty of questions about what role they should play, how they should be built, and who should pay for them.

Several other states are ahead of us. Massachusetts has been prodding microgrids for several years and California set up seven demonstrations four years ago at municipal facilities, a utility-owned solar plant and even a Native American tribal center. But each state is different, so it makes sense for New Hampshire to consider our own situation.

Rep. Howard Moffett, D-Canterbury, a sponsor of the bill, says one of the first things a study group would do is see whether any New Hampshire laws might block large microgrids, almost by accident.

A lot of laws and regulations have been generated over the decades based on the idea that the power grid consists of some corporate-owned power plants that send electricity to every user as needed in a one-way system. As we transition to a system full of changes like rooftop solar panels that require two-way connections and wind turbines which can’t be turned on and off at will, it’s possible that some of the laws might get in the way.

The other big issues the committee would consider are technical. Where should microgrids be built? What benefit can they provide in local backup power during emergencies? What system-wide effect can they have in coping with grid intermittency and load balancing, maybe even cutting out the need to build some expensive transmission upgrades? How can they help the power system replace fossil fuel power with renewable energy?

Money will, of course, be paramount. How much, if anything, should rate-payers like you and me cough up to build somebody else’s microgrid?

Maybe more than we might think. California has found that a well-designed microgrid can provide serious financial returns by lowering the peaks of energy usage – those moments on a hot summer afternoon when you have to turn on every possible power plant, including the dirtiest and most expensive, such as the “jet engine” generators that Eversource keeps on standby in Bow.

A microgrid that reduces peak need might trim the cost of those expensive power plants, and potentially trim my electric rate.

There is a sort of precedent next door. Green Mountain Power in Vermont says it saved a half-million bucks in peak charges last summer by controlling residents’ home battery systems to create a sort of virtual microgrid. A physical microgrid might be able to do even more.

The microgrid bill has been approved in the New Hampshire House and is being considered by the state Senate, although its future might be iffy since the biomass-plant issue got tacked onto it.

As for Moffett, he says he got interested in this topic after a visit to ISO-New England, the folks who oversee the power grid.

Moffett noted that ISO-NE’s control facility in Holyoke, Mass., “is its own microgrid. They need to keep running is something happens and the rest of the grid goes down.”

“We are realizing that the grid is vulnerable in all kids of ways – cold spikes in winters, storms … and there’s also now, we understand, the potential risk of cybersecurity,” he said. “We know that Russian hackers have gotten into the grid, into the control rooms of our power plants. … we don’t know how many but we know that some of them are sitting there with mal ware, introduced from abroad.”

Oh boy, something else to worry about. Maybe I will buy myself a generator, after all.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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