How a Small Connecticut Town and its Utility Are Building a Microgrid: Part 1

Feb. 26, 2015
Woodbridge, Connecticut and United Illuminating are building a microgrid under a unique deal that offers benefits to both the town and utility.

Credit: Jerry Dougherty

Microgrid developers do not have the luxury of well-beaten paths to follow; the industry is too new.

Thus, developers are hungry for road maps.  And the state of Connecticut is busy creating some of those maps with 11 projects that were awarded more than $23 million in state grants.

Connecticut was the first state in the nation to offer such a significant amount of grant money to build microgrids. The state’s goal is to keep the power flowing when storms or devastation hit.

The very small town of Woodbridge (p. 9,000) offers a glimpse into the kind of problem-solving that is emerging from Connecticut, as it serves as a kind of learning lab for other states.

Located just outside of New Haven (home of Yale University), Woodbridge won a $3 million state grant to build a microgrid. Under the grant’s terms, the town can use the money to build the microgrid’s underground transmission system. The wires would transport the power, but what would create it? The town had to come up with a way to pay for the generation portion of the microgrid.

Financing generation has proven to be one of the stumbling blocks faced by the microgrids under development in Connecticut, according to state officials assisting with the projects.

Woodbridge solved its problem by solving someone else’s — namely that of its local utility, United Illuminating.

UI had to meet a state requirement to develop 10 MW of renewable energy under the Renewables Connections Program (RCP). The program allows the utility to earn a higher rate of return for developing the 10 MW than it would through its typical rate structure.

State regulators granted the higher ROI to take into account the risk associated with the projects that UI planned to pursue. Most of the 10 MW would be built in the aging industrial city of Bridgeport, which is attempting to transform into a smart city. The higher ROI also gave the utility greater incentive to fulfill its requirement.

But UI only had 7.8 MW of renewables in planning; it was short 2.2 MW.  Then it learned of Woodbridge’s need for generation to build a microgrid.

Building a microgrid and meeting a state mandate

The utility and the town struck an agreement. UI would pay for a 2.2 MW fuel cell to power the microgrid. This spared the town the need to come up with funds for the generation, and fulfilled UI’s RCP requirement.

Under the deal, UI owns the fuel cell and maintains it, while the town owns and controls the microgrid.

“Given the weather extremes we have been experiencing, the importance of the microgrid is increasingly evident,” said Ellen Scalettar, Woodbridge first selectman “It will provide ongoing power for the town’s essential services and security to Woodbridge residents during extended power outages.

The fuel cell’s power will flow to the grid during normal operations.  But if there is a power outage, the microgrid can island and power the Woodbridge Town Hall, library, fire house, police station, public works, high school, and senior center, which also serves as an emergency shelter.

The utility has yet to finalize terms with a fuel cell contractor. But it hopes to start construction this spring or summer, with a target date for completion in third quarter 2016, according to Michael West, UI spokesman. The fuel cell will be installed at Amity High School, which will use its waste heat.

“We are pleased that Woodbridge is moving forward with this important project and is poised to have one of the first microgrids in the state,” said  Rob Klee, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.  “When the power goes out, this microgrid will keep the lights on in municipal and public safety facilities so that critical services can be provided to residents.”

This is part 1 of two on Connecticut’s microgrid program. Check back on MicrogridKnowledge.com for part 2 about lessons learned in Connecticut and its upcoming, third request for proposals for microgrids.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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