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The massive power blackouts left in the wake of Hurricane Irene have underscored the importance of microgrids—smaller versions of the larger utility grid that have the ability to seal itself off from the large grid to keep supplying emergency power. For the most part, though, microgrids have not gotten much attention from mainstream utilities. However, the United States military and university campuses are leading the way in implementing microgrid technology.

New research by Pike Research suggests that by 2017 North American campuses will reach 1,281 MW. Further, the report predicts, “Overall, the North American campus environment sector will reach 1,572 MW out of a global total of 1,642 MW, a world market share that exceeds 95% in the same average scenario.” In addition, annual revenue is projected to reach almost $800 million by 2017.

The state of New York has three campus microgrids, which have come online over the past two years at Cornell University (38 MW); New York University Washington Square Park (13.4 MW); and  Burrstone Energy Center, which encompasses Utica College, and St. Luke’s Hospital and Nursing Home (3.6 MW).

New York utility Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) considers microgrids an opportunity to sell natural gas to combined heat and power (CHP) units. And now in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in the Con Ed service area, the utility is expected to accelerate efforts to expand implementation of the microgrid energy management platform through the Eastern seaboard, along with other areas prone to hurricanes.

California has the most college and university campus microgrids in the United States. The California State University (CSU) system, which has 23 campuses across the state, has mandated renewable energy installations and green buildings among other conservation policies. Currently nearly every CSU campus features some form of a microgrid, from advanced to basic. According to Reuters, “At least four CSU campuses are currently entertaining proposals to develop state-of-the-art microgrids incorporating carbon-free renewable distributed energy generation (RDEG), as well as smart grid demand response (DR) and other energy efficiency upgrades.”

Interestingly, Len Pettis, Chief of Energy and Utility Operations in CSU’s Chancellor’s office, accuses utilities of being an impediment because of “stand-by service charges.” Utilities charge the fees, Reuters reports, “under the presumption that they need to back-up any on-site customer owned power supplies due to their legal obligation to serve. But these charges are also used to make alternatives to utility service uneconomic.”

Pettis notes: “A stand-by service charge by a utility is worthless in time of a natural disaster and is a luxury we can no longer afford. We need to develop contract partnerships with utilities, because we’ll be here for decades to come. Our college campus network could integrate excess capacity and islanding functions and solve many of the problems linked with integration of new renewables for the next two decades. We’ve got the technology, but we have a bunch of knuckleheads in Sacramento and San Francisco,” he says, referring to the State Legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission.

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