US Senate Debates Energy Bill that Could Affect Microgrid Development

March 6, 2020
The US Senate is scheduled to continue debate next week on broad-based energy legislation that could affect microgrid development.

The US Senate is debating broad-based energy legislation that could affect microgrid development, partly through funding for energy storage and renewable energy programs.

The American Energy Innovation Act was introduced in late February by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after a year of hearings on scores of energy bills. The bill (S. 2657) contains provisions from about 50 bills that were considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the last year.

Debated on the Senate floor March 5, the bill deals with a range of issues, including grid modernization, energy storage, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Debate is scheduled to continue Monday, March 9.

Lawmakers are seeking to add scores of amendments to the bill, such as extending renewable production and investment tax credits that are phasing out, which may bog down action on the legislation. 

One section specifically deals with microgrids. Within discussion of grid modernization, the legislation directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to set up a program to promote microgrid systems that use alternative power sources for isolated communities and microgrid systems to increase the resilience of critical infrastructure.

Focus on hybrid microgrids

The bill also directs the energy department to try to improve the efficiency of hybrid microgrids, which are defined as microgrids using conventional generation combined with at least one alternative energy resource, such as wind and solar.

As part of the program, DOE is required to develop a strategy for setting targets to use hybrid microgrids for the economic displacement of conventional generation, including generation to produce power, heating and cooling, and transportation.

In addition, DOE needs to consider how hybrid microgrids might affect US defense, homeland security, economic development and environmental interests, according to the bill.

The program should culminate in cost-shared demonstration projects. 

Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is a microgrid advocate. Her home state has about 12% of the world’s microgrid systems, including many that operate on renewable energy, according to the senator.

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In promoting the bill on the Senate floor, she pointed out that it has been 12 years since Congress enacted comprehensive legislation to update energy laws. “When you think of what has happened in a dozen years  — 12 years ago we didn’t even have Ipads,” she said. “Our policies have not kept pace.”

There are other provisions in the bill that could indirectly affect microgrids, including a combined heat and power technical assistance program. The program must encourage deployment of CHP, waste heat to power, and efficient district energy by providing education and outreach and project-specific support.

$12M a year in funding for various technologies

The bill authorizes the program at $12 million a year from 2021 through 2025. Among other things, the funds can be used to identify candidates for deploying CHP technologies, hybrid renewable-CHP technologies, microgrids and clean energy.

If approved, the bill would establish an energy storage research, development and deployment program. The bill directs DOE to support five energy storage demonstration projects that meet at least one of various objectives, including supporting microgrids, with annual funding of $280 million a year for the program through 2025.

The bill also authorizes:

  • $160 million a year for five years starting in 2021 for marine energy research and development, including technologies that could support microgrids for isolated communities
  • $270 million and $120 million a year over five years for separate solar and wind research programs. Among other things the programs would explore how to better integrate solar and wind with microgrids
Coronavirus could delay energy legislation

It is unclear when action on the legislation could wrap up. The Senate may put the bill on hold while it deals with legislation to fund efforts to fight the coronavirus.

House Democrats are planning their own energy bill, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. If both chambers pass energy legislation, they would iron out the differences between the bills in a conference committee.

Groups working in the microgrid arena that support the bill include the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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About the Author

Ethan Howland

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