Lessons learned since darkness descended on central New Jersey in the wake of Sandy's wrecking winds include at least one triumph: Princeton University's leafy campus stayed lit by tapping its own smaller version of the power grid – a "microgrid."
|Students fill desks at Princeton's Firestone Library after the Hurricane Sandy|
Microgrids were a hot topic among some policymakers even before Sandy hit. Backup generators may fail to start, run out of fuel, or break down. But microgrids like the one at Princeton act as a highly efficient, miniature version of the big power grid, operate 24/7, and tap into reliable natural gas-fired generators or perhaps wind turbines or even solar panels with battery storage.
Spurred by Hurricane Irene and a bad snowstorm last October, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have had teams researching energy options to hedge against widespread grid outages from increasingly violent storms. Microgrids, they found, can supply power to critical shelters, hospitals, and city centers even if the grid is out for days on end.
Princeton wasn't the only institution enjoying microgrid "islanding" capability:
- New York University used its microgrid to provide power and heat to a big part of its Manhattan campus while power was out all around it.
- South Windsor High School in Connecticut typically uses a big fuel-cell system to convert natural gas to electricity to defray power costs, but it switched over to become grid independent and served as an emergency shelter during Sandy.
- The Federal Drug Administration’s White Oak research facility in Maryland, which supplies much of its own power every day, switched to island mode with its own natural gas turbines powering all the facility's buildings for more than two days.
Few true microgrids exist today. Most state laws are geared to limit competition to big utilities.