State regulators want to know if Georgia Power had considered a microgrid “for such a critical customer” as the Atlanta airport before this week’s 11-hour electrical outage.
The question was among a series that the staff of the Georgia Public Service Commission sent to the utility this week about the December 17 outage that crippled the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Docket No. 36989). The power outage led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights at the world’s busiest airport.
The airport lost power after a fire broke out in a service tunnel under the airport.
The letter asks the utility if it has studied the feasibility of installing a microgrid or will do so, given its acquisition of PowerSecure, a company experienced in constructing microgrids. Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, purchased PowerSecure in February 2016 for $431 million.
The commission also wants to know from the utility if a “functional” microgrid — one that includes thermal energy sources, renewable energy and energy storage — could have minimized the outage.
Several power experts told Microgrid Knowledge that at the very least a microgrid would have kept the outage from spreading throughout the airport.
For regulated utilities like Georgia Power, microgrid investments can be a tricky financial decision. No incentives are in place to encourage such utilities to pursue microgrids. Moreover, no guarantee exists that regulators will allow the utility to recover the capital costs of the microgrid through rates. Regulators in some states have denied cost recovery arguing that it’s unfair to ask all ratepayers to pay for a microgrid that benefit only specific critical customers.
Thomas McAndrew, president and CEO of Enchanted Rock (ERock), noted that deals must be structured correctly so that costs — and savings from the microgrid — are shared appropriately.
Lesson from Texas
ERock installed microgrids in Texas convenience stores that proved their worth during this year’s Hurricane Harvey.
The Texas-based company installs and operates natural gas generators at commercial sites, which it aggregates into virtual power plant microgrids. The microgrids earn revenue by leveraging wholesale market prices. As a result, ERock is able to charge customers only a small fee for the installation.
During normal operations, the virtual power plant provides support services to the central grid. When an outage occurs, the microgrid generators island from the grid and provide back-up power for their host sites. That’s what they did when Harvey struck in August.
McAndrew noted that the microgrids not only kept the stores up and running, but provided a public good, acting as a base for emergency workers.
30 days to respond
The public service commission staff has given Georgia Power 30 days to respond to its inquiry. In addition to the questions specific to microgrids, the commission asked if the utility will be pursuing further security measures for the airport now that this electrical vulnerability has been exposed.
Other questions involve the event’s cause, timing, communications, costs and preventative steps to avert a similar outage.
Georgia Power’s CEO Paul Bowers apologized for the outage in a video posted on the utility’s website. He said that the company’s primary focus now is to investigate the cause so that it does not happen again.
Learn about the value of microgrids for airports and other transit facilities. Register for Microgrid 2018, May 7-9 in Chicago.