Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is seeking a partner to bring to fruition its ambitious plans for multiple microgrids coordinated by a newly created county utility.
The county recently issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) for a partner to get the new county utility up and running.
“Microgrids are a forward-thinking way to serve our community with reliable power in a time when weather and outages can be unpredictable,” said Armond Budish, county executive, noting the massive power outages that Hurricane Ian recently brought to Florida.
“We’ve had positive momentum on our county utility and the release of this RFQ is the next step to making our county resilient and better prepared for anything,” Budish said.
The energy project is part of the county’s plan to reinvigorate its economy – it was once a hub of manufacturing – while pursuing climate goals and advancing equity. Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is the second most populated county in Ohio with 1.2 million people.
Why Cuyahoga County is creating a utility
The county said it is establishing its own utility because it has run into barriers to microgrids caused by conventional utility policies and regulations in Ohio.
“These barriers include high electricity rates with inflated riders; unfavorable rate mechanisms and onerous regulation that limit the value and deployment of renewable energy; subsidies for coal plants; an unstable grid; high energy burdens on low-income communities; and a corruption scandal involving state agencies and the local investor-owned utility,” the county wrote in the RFQ.
Cuyahoga County has won the necessary legal approvals to move forward on the utility, which will be much like a municipal utility, allowing the county to set electricity rates, create interconnection rules and establish other policies designed to lower energy costs and improve service.
“A utility operated with more sophisticated and economic coordination between responsive loads, local generation and wholesale power supply could support a higher percentage of renewables, very high uptime and usher in advanced technologies,” the county said in the RFQ.
“The county envisions Cuyahoga County becoming a microgrid industry hub in the United States – pairing industry leaders with research institutions such as NASA …”
Cuyahoga County believes the microgrids and county utility would “attract advanced manufacturing to the county, catapult clean energy companies in the region, and make progress on climate initiatives. The county envisions Cuyahoga County becoming a microgrid industry hub in the United States – pairing industry leaders with research institutions such as NASA and academic institutions such as Case Western and Cleveland State University.”
The idea of creating new utilities for microgrids also has emerged in California, where residential solar company Sunnova Energy recently proposed creating microutilities for neighborhoods with microgrids.
“Most local governments do not own or have influence over their electric utility,” said the county in the RFQ. “Instead, they are subject to the preferences of state officials and executives of investor-owned utility monopolies. The county utility offers a stark alternative by enabling cities to collaborate with their local electric utility, influencing its programs and priorities, such as renewable energy and microgrid deployment and electric vehicle infrastructure.
Phased microgrid plan
The county plans to execute the plan by building microgrids through public/private partnerships in a phased approach.
Phase one would attract transmission customers interested in peak load management or behind-the-meter projects.
“These customers should be the least complicated to switch from their existing distribution utility as there is minimal to no electric distribution equipment between the customer and the transmission grid. Further, these customers have large loads and thus higher revenue potential to the county utility,” said the RFQ.
In the second phase, the county would create microgrid districts in industrial corridors, work on the acquisition or construction of distribution infrastructure and organize customers into microgrid districts.
Phase three would bring additional microgrid districts and service to smaller transmission and business customers.
Future phases might incorporate residential customers into the microgrid districts or support community solar projects.
The county wants individual private companies to develop microgrids within the districts, and it plans to issue a future solicitation to prequalify multiple developers.
Ideal utility partner
But for now, Cuyahoga County seeks a partner to build and operate the county utility, under a long-term contract, funded through utility rates, grants and wholesale market participation. Applicants should have experience working with independent system operators and public entities and in procuring wholesale power. The applicants should also be able to provide at least $1 million in startup funding.
The release of the utility RFQ is the latest stage in the county’s multiyear microgrid hub project.
“Earlier this summer, we released a request for information for our county utility, asking the energy industry for feedback on how to best structure our new utility, if the ‘market’ will front dollars for project build-outs, and what kind of technology should be considered for microgrid projects. We received nearly 40 responses from energy companies all over the country, including some from Europe and Canada. In general, there was a lot of fascination with what we are doing. We had some companies who said they never respond to RFIs, but thought that what we were doing was so unique that they had to weigh in, therefore submitting a response,” said Mike Foley, county director of sustainability. “I am really excited that this next stage is here, and that we will be hiring utility professionals to manage the build-out of microgrid strategy.”
Deadlines and milestones
The deadline to respond to the RFQ, available on the county’s purchasing site, is Nov. 18. A prequalification conference is scheduled for Oct. 20. The county intends to notify top contenders by Dec. 31 and begin contract negotiations in January 2023.
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