Microgrids Still Just R&D for Massachusetts Utilities?

Sept. 9, 2015
Microgrids are relatively scant — largely pilot or R&D proposals — in recent grid modernization plans that Massachusetts utilities filed with the state. How the state responds may offer some insight into the Baker administration’s stand on microgrids.

Microgrids are typically considered a key element of today’s grid modernization. But not so much in recent Massachusetts utility plans.

Microgrids are relatively scant — largely pilot or R&D proposals — in recent grid modernization plans that Massachusetts utilities filed with the state.

The proposals are signficant because they  represent hundreds of millions of dollars of potential new electric infrastructure investment by the three investor-owned electric utilities: Eversource, National Grid and Unitil.

The plans are the outcome of an order last year by the Department of Public Utilities that the utilities begin evaluating grid modernization. The utilities responded with plans that largely focus on distribution-level grid improvements and limit microgrids to smaller pilots or further study.

The R&D approach by Massachusetts utilities stands in stark contrast to New York’s aggressive move to develop commercial-scale microgrids that attract outside investment through its NY Prize. In a recent interview with MicrogridKnowledge.com, NY Prize Director Micah Kotch summed up New York’s approach by saying, “We’re not looking for science projects.”

So why do Massachusetts utilities seem to still be in the science project phase? Here’s what they said in their filings.

Eversource, which estimates its plan would cost $67 million to $120 million over a five-year period, said that it still sees microgrids as a “nascent technology” in need of R&D to better understand how they impact system safety and reliability.

“For example, Eversource will be interested in understanding how a microgrid will connect and disconnect from the main electric distribution system and how it will transition from grid connect to island mode to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the main electric distribution system, as well as of the microgrid,” the utility said in its filing.

Eversource’s plan instead focuses on central grid improvements that it says will create a smart, integrated and resilient grid, which also encourages customer engagement.

National Grid offered $225 million-$830 million five-year proposal that is heavily influenced by its earlier smart grid pilot program. It emphasizes giving customers greater control over their energy usage and costs with two-way grid communication and time-varying rates, as well as advanced distribution automation, voltage management and associated grid infrastructure.

The utility said that it considered comprehensive energy storage and microgrid programs, but decided instead on a “smaller pilot which can provide experience and learning with these items, rather than a territorywide deployment.”

The demonstration microgrid would power critical facilities for five days during utility outages. In addition to existing generators, the microgrid would include one MW of combined heat and power and one MW of solar PV.

Unitil calls its approach “practical grid modernization,” which emphasizes both the technical and rate impact of change. The utility ultimately settled on 16 projects that help integrate distributed energy, reduce outages, automate grid operations, help customers better manage energy, and improve worker efficiency.

The utility, the state’s smallest, considered microgrid development in an early version of its plan, but later dropped it based on a scoring system that considered such criteria as cost, time to implement, risk, level of effort and ability to meet the state and utility goals.

What the State Commission Sought

The DPU’s grid modernization order sounds like a custom-fit not only for the central smart grid improvements offered by the utilities, but also for microgrids. And in fact, the order references the technology specifically. It calls upon utilities to come up with  10-year utility plans that:

  • Empower customers to better manage and reduce electricity costs
  • Enhance the reliability and resiliency of electricity service in the face of increasingly extreme weather
  • Encourage innovation and investment in new technology and infrastructure, strengthening the competitive electricity market
  • Address climate change and meet clean energy requirements by integrating more clean and renewable power, demand response, electricity storage, microgrids and electric vehicles, and provide for increased amounts of energy efficiency

Of course, the utility plans are only proposals — they still require approval by the DPU — so could change.

Since it began its grid modernization proceeding, Massachusetts has elected a new governor. Charlie Baker, a Republican, who replaced Deval Patrick, a Democrat.  The DPU also has new leadership. The grid modernization proceeding is likely to give the microgrid industry strong clues on whether the new administration is pro or con on microgrids.

What do you think of the approach by Massachusetts utilities to microgrids. Is it too cautious? Post your comment below or on our Linkedin Groups: Microgrid Knowledge or Community Microgrids and Local Energy.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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