Eyes on the Prize: What 83 Community Microgrid Assessments Can Teach the World About Resilience, Open Government, and the Reinvention of the Grid

NY Prize is shaking up the clean energy market – the $40 million competition is asking local New York communities to think big about energy resiliency and conservation in the context of increasing extreme weather events, and then asking them design a local energy system to achieve those goals.

The first-in-the-nation competition harnesses value embedded in the utility platform and enables greater adoption of new energy solutions customers want. Strengthening and modernizing the State’s electric grid not by government handouts to utilities, but by empowering communities and third parties to integrate microgrids and put forth new business models that serve critical infrastructure, and have the ability to delight and surprise customers with new energy products and services that improve their quality of life. Microgrids are localized and optimized grids that can disconnect from the traditional electric grid to operate autonomously and fill critical infrastructure and service needs in the event of an emergency. They also operate during normal, ‘blue-sky’ days and can help defer costly infrastructure investments that would lead to higher bills for customers. These systems can be thought of as ‘the brains’ of any distributed energy resource, like solar or storage; they have a variety of options to “share” their services with the grid – such as by participating in demand response programs or by providing ancillary services (such as voltage control or regulation) by selling generated excess power back to the grid.

The competition is just one of a bundle of initiatives to tackle the goals of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision, commonly known as REV, which aims to build a cleaner and more resilient, accessible and affordable energy system.

NY Prize has the potential to address REV’s key goals of grid optimization, control, and resilience, for all New Yorkers. Nearly half of NY Prize projects are located in HUD-Defined Low and Moderate Income Communities. REV puts consumer needs at the front and center of its goals, and involves them in the process from the start, so they can be part of solutions that are fit-for-use. These microgrids are the penultimate form of democracy and self-determination. While they are designed to be scaleable and replicable, they rely on inspired community engagement, market innovation, preservation of critical community infrastructure like schools and hospitals, and encourage forward-thinking urban planning and new community partnerships with utilities, local governments, and the private sector.

Three years after Superstorm Sandy, which left many New Yorkers without power for weeks, increasing energy resiliency is still on the minds of State officials, business owners and residents alike. Our job is to turn that thought into action. Because they are able to operate independently from the ‘macro’ electric grid in the event of extreme weather events or grid disturbances, microgrids represent our best chance at being able to bounce back stronger from the next storm. The Department of Energy has funded a number of these systems at military bases and other locations across the US, because they are a flexible resource for faster system response and recovery from natural disasters.

The problem is that while we can buy ‘military-grade’ pickup trucks, we can’t buy ‘military-grade’ energy…yet. Take the city of Utica, for example — one of the 83 Prize Stage I winners currently investigating the potential of a microgrid installation. The city’s aging critical infrastructure in Bagg’s Square and Harbor Point, much of which lacks a source of backup power, includes buildings such as a wastewater treatment facility, the Centro bus station, city hall, and the Utica Memorial Auditorium (a potential emergency shelter).

These buildings’ lack of a backup power source makes many city officials uneasy about their community’s ability to react in the event of an emergency.

“Should there be an emergency, these operations really should be active and underway or be able to do what they do,” said Jack Spaeth, executive director of the Utica Industrial Development Authority, in an article for the Utica Observer Dispatch.

A microgrid in Utica would ensure clean water, plowed roads, functioning hospitals, and other critical services in the event of an emergency.

Microgrids also enable communities to produce, rather than passively consume, their own power. In addition to the environmental benefits of decreased energy consumption, microgrids enable communities to join the emerging “sharing economy” – joining platforms such as Uber and Airbnb that create more affordable solutions and unique income streams for those willing and able to produce distributed energy, and becoming a little more innovative as a 21st century citizen.

Jennifer Trimber, Director of Chemung County Environmental Management Commission, believes that their participation in NY Prize will help the city of Elmira, another of the 83 Stage I Winners, “spur economic growth and empower the local community, she said in an article for the Elmira Telegram. 

Rebuilding our energy infrastructure, meeting the challenge of a changing climate, and creating good jobs is a massive challenge - the defining test of this generation is whether we’re up to the challenge. We’ll succed or fail together. Join in on the conversation #rev4ny #nyprize.

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