Will America’s Steel City Build the First Grid of Microgrids? 

May 16, 2017
To many, the idea of creating a grid of microgrids is somewhere out in the future. Even a pipe dream. But for Pittsburgh, it’s now. The city is pursuing an aggressive plan to lead on energy, which includes developing a series of connected local energy systems

To many, the idea of creating a grid of microgrids is somewhere out in the future. Even a pipe dream. But for Pittsburgh, it’s now.

The city is pursuing an aggressive plan to lead on energy, which includes developing a series of connected local energy systems.

“The idea of having an energy plant that is 100 miles away producing energy to make your toast would be left in the 19th century, where it was started,” said Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.

Peduto was among panelists last week who presented Pittsburgh’s strategy in a webinar hosted by Harvard Business Review (HBR), Siemens and 100 Resilience Cities.

Such talk is somewhat daring. Microgrids themselves are nascent, never mind a network of them that uses automated software so that they can trade energy among each other.

Still more theory than practice, a grid of microgrids is made up of multiple microgrids, each able to work alone to serve their local energy customers, or together to configure resources and maximize efficiencies. During a power outage, they separate from the grid, and each other, to protect their systems and keep the power flowing to their own customer base. Some see the North America’s electric system eventually evolving into a grid of microgrids with the central grid acting as a back-up system.

America’s new building block

What’s driving Pittsburgh to be first on this frontier? The panelists — city officials and academic and utility representatives — pointed to a confluence of factors that make Pittsburgh suited to the task.

For one, it’s experienced calamity, so is intent on building a more secure economic structure.

Once the center of the steel industry, Pittsburgh suffered steep losses during the industry’s collapse of the 1980s. The city’s population remains half of what it was during its prosperous times. Now, with distributed energy emerging as America’s new building block, city officials see an opportunity to make Pittsburgh for energy what it once was for steel.

In the city’s view, a grid of microgrids creates economic potential. Highly reliable energy, the city posits, will attract data centers, research facilities and manufacturers that cannot afford even momentary outages.

Given that Pittsburgh’s energy infrastructure is aging and needs to be replaced, opportunity exists to plan anew. The city can recreate the old macro-grid which focuses on ‘dumb’ one-way flow of power, or get a jumpstart on a two-way grid of microgrids.

“We are witnessing the twilight of the macro-grid and dawn of the microgrid,” said Gregory Unruh, professor at George Mason University. “There is a suite of technologies that are allowing the emergence of much more small-scale, local generation.”

The city is attempting to be a national model for the new grid. Two years ago, Pittsburgh signed a memorandum of agreement with the US Department of Energy to create a grid of microgrids for the city core and surrounding areas.

Bones of a grid of microgrids

Pittsburgh is a good starting point; it already has the bones for a grid of microgrids. For years, it has employed district energy. Upgrading five of those local energy systems is part of the new plan, as well as developing at least four new sites for microgrids, combined heat and power and district energy.

Sustainability goals also drive Pittsburgh. Heavy manufacturing once made it a ‘two-shirt city.’ While the air is now cleaner, the shale revolution raised environmental specters of the past for some. Peduto saw the debate over natural gas as divisive.

“Pittsburgh had paid its price in the last industrial revolution, especially within the urban core where fresh water and population were so critical. It didn’t make sense to be able to drill in the city. But it was dividing us,” he said.

He sat down to talk with representatives of the fossil fuel industry. The idea of district energy emerged as a middle ground, he said. Often coupled with combined heat and power (CHP), and sometimes configured into a microgrid, such systems offer an efficient use of natural gas. (CHP was centerpiece of the Obama administration’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases.)

How to pay for it?

Of course, like most cities, Pittsburgh has no big pot of money to smarten its infrastructure. It is capturing assistance from several funding sources, among them federal grants. The city also expects its project to draw private investment and developers. NRG Energy, for example, is building a $61 million district energy center in Pittsburgh’s Uptown District.

But no clear path exists yet — in Pittsburgh or elsewhere — to pay for microgrids that are coupled with urban development. In New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, state government is trying to jump start community microgrids with grant dollars. In other states, utilities have pushed for ratepayer funding of microgrids that serve a public purpose. The idea failed to win over state decision-makers in Illinois and Maryland. In Pennsylvania, a PECO Energy microgrid project is on hold as stakeholders try to hash out various issues.

None of this is lost on Pittsburgh, and that’s perhaps where the city’s story gets most interesting. The city is trying to reframe thinking about planning and capitalizing energy infrastructure.

Peduto advocates a ‘systems of systems’ approach, an interweaving of energy and urban improvement projects that combines energy, transportation, communications and climate planning as a one within corridors throughout the city.

“So an urban planner today isn’t just looking at a neighborhood plan and saying how is it sustainable with its buildings, or how is sustainable with public transportation. They are looking at all of these different systems as one, and being able to develop community plans based upon on that,” he said.

Credit: “Pittsburgh District Energy Initiative,” presentation by Michael Rooney, University of Pittsburgh, Dec. 6, 2017, MRC/IDEA Microgrid Summit, Washington, DC

The technology exists for this kind of planning; public awareness may not.

“There is a learning curve right now that needs to bring up the public to understand where the potential is,” he said.

Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer, says it’s a “mindset” issue; it’s necessary to start thinking about the utility ratepayer and taxpayer as one and coordinate assets strategically.

“How do we start to aggregate capital decisions in a smart way because they are all coming out of the same pockets,” he said. When it comes to who benefits, “it’s not that it’s somebody different or somebody down the street. It’s our neighbors, it’s us, it’s our families,” he added.

Systems thinking also requires engaging all of the parties. In Pittsburgh’s case, this has meant creating a team that includes city officials, the utility, universities and other institutions to plan the new grid. At first the city and utility eyed each other dubiously, wary of losing turf. “But the understanding that we have a shared path together is really key to this,” Ervin said. “When we coordinate, the residents, the taxpayers and the ratepayers benefit.”

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Benjamin Morris, Duquesne Light’s senior manager, planning & operational analytics, said the utility is on board with the changes – its customers are demanding it. In fact, the utility has a microgrid project of its own underway.

“The grid we have today can be reconfigured into microgrids though investment in the future. The reality is, that’s going to take some time,” Morris said. “For a period of time we will be in transition from the centralized model to a grid of microgrids model. That’s the journey Pittsburgh is on.”

The city has a long way to go. Many of its projects are still on paper not pavement. But it’s already learned some lessons to offer.

“Partnership. Partnership,” Peduto said. “If you are a company work with your local elected officials. If you are blessed to have universities or other education institutions in your region, partner and reach out to them. Start it from the bottom up. Don’t go to the federal government sand say, ‘Hey we want to do this.’  Do it organically from the ground up.”

Will the macrogrid evolve into a grid of microgrids? Post your thoughts below or on our Linkedin Group, Microgrid Knowledge.

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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