Program to foster community microgrids in Mass.

By Maxine Joselow | 05/15/2017 07:19 AM EDT

Massachusetts may soon be home to several new community microgrid projects.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center launched a program earlier this month aimed at catalyzing the development of community microgrids throughout the state. The center will provide $75,000 of funding for three to five projects that it deems attractive.

Advocates of microgrids have long touted their ability to improve the reliability and resiliency of the grid. Microgrids can operate autonomously while the main grid is down, which makes them particularly useful during peak demand and weather strain.

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The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center has chosen to focus on community microgrids, or microgrids that support an entire district. Staff at the center say community microgrids can provide backup to critical facilities such as schools, hospitals, and police and fire stations.

The Northeast currently leads the nation in installed microgrid capacity with 567 megawatts, according to a report by GTM Research. But New York dominates other Northeastern states, largely thanks to combined heat and power microgrids in and around New York City.

"There are a handful of other states around the country, including New York and Connecticut, that have developed microgrid programs for a lot of the same reasons we are," said Galen Nelson, senior director of innovation and industry support at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

"They’re concerned about resilience, and the ability of communities to recover from prolonged power outages," Nelson said. "They’re interested in exploring additional strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And of course, they’re concerned about energy costs."

The center will accept applications for the program until June 23, Nelson said. At that point, the center will begin selecting projects to undergo feasibility assessments, he said.

In this respect, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s program resembles a program by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority called the NY Prize. That program provided $100,000 to dozens of communities to study the feasibility of microgrids.

"What we want to achieve with the feasibility study is to help highlight potential components of a project that will make it less risky and more attractive to private investors," Nelson said. "That means looking at the existing generation assets and how they might be combined with new assets, particularly energy storage."

Since its launch, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s program has received praise from city officials in Boston, industry associations and the private sector.

Travis Sheehan, senior infrastructure adviser at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, said he thinks the program’s funding will be essential to helping community microgrid projects get off the ground and attract third-party investment.

"I think this grant funding is absolutely crucial for Massachusetts communities to develop microgrids," Sheehan said. "The microgrid market has a really unresolved business model. The engineering costs are kind of floating in the air among multiple stakeholders. This kind of funding really helps you get over the hump of being able to create a vision to get the stakeholders on board."

Sheehan also said he thinks Boston is fertile ground for development of community microgrids.

"Boston has a really advanced energy ecosystem already in terms of climate resiliency," Sheehan said. "Between Boston and Cambridge, we have about four or five unique microgrids that belong to college campuses and institutions of higher learning and research. With such an advanced energy ecosystem, we really want to shift the public policy conversation from single microgrids to multi-user microgrids."

Rob Thornton, president and CEO of the International District Energy Association, said he thinks not only Boston, but the entire state of Massachusetts, is a prime candidate for community microgrids.

"In Massachusetts, the economy is populated by medicine and education. It’s often called the ‘med and ed’ economy," Thornton said. "There are clusters of pharma or research in a lot of communities that would lend themselves to highly competitive and economically attractive microgrids.

"The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is kind of lubricating the market," Thornton added. "So we’re hopeful that it will serve to advance new deployment in Massachusetts, not unlike what happened in New York."

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