A housing project in Maryland in the US is demonstrating how utilities can engage with their customers to get the maximum value from microgrid projects. Pamela Largue reports.
Distribution utility Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E) partnered with the Smart Electric Power Alliance plus other stakeholders to develop and execute a microgrid feasibility pilot scheme that would advance carbon reduction and optimise grid management.
The Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) awarded grant funding to the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), which took the lead in conducting and developing the study, as well as stakeholder engagement.
Jared Leader, Manager of Industry Strategy at the SEPA, explained that utilities are increasingly exploring microgrid solutions because the rising cost and frequency of weather disasters have emphasized resilience as a key driver for evaluating planning processes.
In order to roll out microgrids successfully, Leader said: “We want to get under the hood of microgrid planning processes, by building out a template that can be used in future project planning.”
Learning in the field
The Newtowne Twenty affordable housing complex in the city of Annapolis in Maryland is a 78-unit development currently undergoing revitalization and is considered vulnerable.
Local stakeholders and the utility were interested in assessing the feasibility of adding a microgrid to the development, which would introduce locally-generated solar energy and increase resilience.
Jennifer Adams, director of development and modernization at Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis (HACA), explained: “At the Newtowne Twenty property, we shape the services and appliances that use the energy and administer a utility allowance process to ensure utility costs remain affordable.
“We wanted to explore ways to provide reliable and affordable energy to our customers and frankly, it was exciting to be an innovator in a space where the public housing authority is often the last to come to the table.”
After the conceptual phase, the housing authority, SEPA and BG&E conducted an engineering analysis to understand the site in detail and determine what was next.
Leader said: “SEPA had the opportunity to pull together all the stakeholders, leverage grant funding, and come up with an idea of what success looks like for a project like this. We engaged stakeholders, agreed on best practices and developed scenarios to aid planning.”
Practical working groups were developed to allow the team to understand community needs and consider innovative approaches to meet them.
Justin Felt, manager of strategic planning at BG&E, highlighted that the important first step was to reach a consensus on how to tackle the project site, by looking at physical constraints in terms of size and location.
Even though there is no single template for microgrid projects, there can be a boilerplate process, standardised to increase success.
Throughout the Newtowne Twenty development planning process, lessons were learned on how to go about engaging the community to encourage buy-in and ensure the project meets core needs.
Felt said that BG&E’s role in the project was to provide engineering and data analysis. “BG&E, as a local distribution utility, saw this as an opportunity to build internal competency beyond the buckets we typically find ourselves involved in. This was a learning and listening opportunity.
“BGE learned that the stakeholder engagement process is important. You want people to support the process. It’s one thing for an analyst to come up with something in a basement but it’s another thing to see what the people involved actually want.”
A stakeholder engagement questionnaire was vital to get to the root community needs and prioritize them, and the questionnaire also proved to be the ultimate tool to form the microgrid design.
Engaging with stakeholders through the questionnaire allowed the team to learn that customers wanted as much bang for their buck as possible. “So looking at a natural gas generator was more feasible than a renewables-only microgrid,” said Felt.
“Also, backup power for the community centre was not necessarily a priority at first. We had preconceptions, but we wanted to hear from them. It taught us more about learning to listen.”
The residents and stakeholders were given details about the various design scenarios and the potential impact. “We surveyed the stakeholders through a working group to understand their preferences. Based on these preferences, we chose a final scenario,” explained Leader.
And Felt added: “You have to boil it down to the most important information when communicating with stakeholders. We tried to find ways to ensure easy decision-making. We also included outside companies to advise on the engineering nitty-gritty, allowing the key stakeholders to make decisions with ease.”
All scenarios were considered from the perspective of the physical landscape and from a wiring perspective.
The scenario that seemed the best fit for Newtowne was rooftop solar PV, energy storage and natural gas backup standby generation connected to the BG&E grid.
However, in terms of natural gas generation, the generators had to be kept away from pedestrian areas, minimising noise and maximising visual shielding.
As for solar, the team considered carports but eventually decided on rooftop PV for the best insulation, maximising the balance between cost and benefit.
According to Adams, the final microgrid design considered cost, but the most important factor was resilience. Historically, the older buildings experienced frequent power outages which made the ability to island favourable to the community.
“The final design scenario reflects the diversity of the stakeholders involved. When considering cost, having 100% renewable wasn’t the primary consideration. Why wouldn’t you want that kind of resiliency in your house or community centre?”
However, the project presented some key challenges: the planning process had to adjust to the conditions on the ground, especially as it was a re-build housing project. Adams also feels the planning process would have been less challenging if it had been started earlier.
However, the lessons learned have given rise to a blueprint that can be used in future projects, ensuring every voice is incorporated and every customer is served in the most energy-efficient, resilient way.
According to Leader, this is a perfect example of an energy project that can really advance the equity, environmental and social justice goals within communities, as well as resiliency needs and sustainable energy to populations that have historically been left out.
It’s still nascent, and utilities are still grappling with what microgrids are and what their role should be. This was an interesting pilot to demonstrate BGE and HACA’s role and their strategy in working together on projects like this in the future.