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An Island Forms in New Jersey

Montclair State University’s Innovative Microgrid is a Model for All Universities

Posted in: Science and Technology, University

Two engineers walking between large green mechanical structures in the University's energy plant
Photo credit: Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories

As the new school year approaches, Montclair State University students will experience a powerful new addition.

Montclair State is the first university in New Jersey with an innovative Microgrid that can function independently and generate its own power, basically guaranteeing that the lights will never go off. What’s more, the school’s Microgrid is generating a huge financial benefit, saving the University millions of dollars a year in energy costs.

It’s truly a role model for all universities.

The Journey Begins

A university is a lot like a small city, and Montclair State University is no exception. There are 21,000 students enrolled; more than 5,000 live on campus and many more are here at any one time – studying, socializing or playing sports. The campus has a life of its own, and what keeps everything going is power.

Following historic Hurricane Sandy and statewide interruptions to the power grid, school administrators realized that they needed to become power-independent. Not only would it save money, but it would also be more environmentally conscious and reliable. With a long-term plan and pioneering vision, they committed at that time to develop and build what’s known as a Co-generation facility, sometimes called a Combined Heat, Cooling and Power (CHCP) plant. It was finished in September, 2013.

The First Benefit is Efficiency

The problem with standard power plants is that they’re inefficient. That’s because to create electricity, they use a fuel – gas, oil, coal or nuclear – to create steam that then drives a turbine. In the process, the system generates an enormous amount of useless heat, making it only about 30-35% efficient at best.

The beauty of a CHCP plant is its efficiency: it “harvests” that heat through a Heat Recovery Steam Generator, and uses that steam to power chillers and boilers to provide campus-wide cooling and heating in addition to generating electricity. The result is well more than double the efficiency, upwards of 80%, while dramatically reducing its carbon footprint.

Coming Home to Roost

Of course, all power plants need upkeep. And in May 2016, while the gas turbine at the University’s CHCP plant was offline for annual maintenance, a car struck a power pole near the University, taking down one of two electricity “feeders” from the local utility to the campus. At this point, the campus was still fully powered from the other feeder, which operates in parallel. But as luck would have it, soon afterward the remaining feeder was taken out by what can only be considered a fluke event: a large turkey vulture sat on a nearby power line, opened its wings and bridged two lines causing line fuses to blow. This left the campus with no electrical power except emergency generation for critical needs.

Almost totally without power, the University was forced to postpone final exams and extend the academic semester by a full day, inconveniencing students, staff and University operations.

To make sure they never lost power again, the University decided they needed to take one additional step in their march toward energy independence: the bold and breakthrough creation of a campus-wide Microgrid.

Surprisingly, Microgrids aren’t actually new; the first was developed by Thomas Edison in 1882 at his Pearl Street Station in Manhattan, which also used Combined Heat and Power along with electricity generation. Many more rudimentary but effective Microgrids were installed in rural areas and on farms across many states before rural electrification efforts took hold.

The University had already looked seriously at a Microgrid after Hurricane Sandy barreled ashore and took out millions of utility customers across New Jersey and New York, including Montclair State. That’s because the University, even with its own CHCP plant, was still connected to the regional electric grid and depended on that connection to remain fully powered.

Microgrids: Local, Independent and Automated

The University’s power plant is built on a 5.4 megawatt natural gas turbine, producing enough electricity to power 4,300 average homes. It’s combined with boilers and chillers that provide steam for heat and chilled water for air conditioning, supplying a total energy solution to 4 million of the University’s 5.4 million square feet under roof. This kind of power plant isn’t unusual among larger campuses, and it worked – until it didn’t.

But the Microgrid changed all that.

Microgrids are local, independent and automated. Local, in the sense that they’re used for contained campuses such as universities, military bases, industrial parks, major airports and R&D/manufacturing plants. These are ideal locations for Microgrids because electrical load from their buildings and facilities can be easily tied together as a single unit. And it’s more efficient to generate electricity locally, because considerable energy – several percent or more – is typically lost as electricity is sent long distances over high-voltage transmission lines.

The independence part is simple: Microgrids can totally isolate themselves from the regional electric grid, essentially “islanding” the entire campus. This is valuable especially considering the interconnectedness, and vulnerability, of the U.S. electric grid.

What’s more, Microgrids are automated. Their controllers take inputs from electrical loads and orchestrate the best use of all available resources. It can respond to off-campus power disturbances in milliseconds, and also determine how much, when and where the Microgrid supplies power or needs to take additional power from the local utility. It’s truly automated and protected by a layered set of cybersecurity measures, further helping ensure no power interruptions.

Resiliency and Cost Savings

Beyond the 5.4 megawatts available from the gas turbine, as well as power directly from the grid, the Microgrid incorporates 5.3 megawatts of emergency generation which can run indefinitely on natural gas, and more than four days on fuel oil in case the supply of natural gas is interrupted. This provides an unparalleled level of resiliency, the ability to maintain power even when the regional grid power is entirely down.

Yet its benefits aren’t just operational – they’re financial as well. The Montclair State University CHCP plant combined with its Microgrid, which went online in January 2019, currently saves the University in excess of $4 million annually by lowering total energy costs and managing and controlling on-campus energy use. It can regulate how much power it purchases from the regional grid, and can actually sell power back to the grid operator when the controller determines that that’s the best economic choice.

By having the ability to export power back to the main energy grid, Montclair State is reducing its own energy use and becoming a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable partner for its grid power provider, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG).

“Montclair State’s microgrid is an excellent use of innovative technology to help the university manage their energy use more efficiently,” said Dave Daly, PSE&G president and COO. “Their system integrates seamlessly with PSE&G’s electric grid and is a positive step toward a more cost-effective energy future.”

“The University’s comprehensive and longstanding partnership with PSEG will continue to serve as an asset to Montclair State’s energy management,” says Vice President for University Facilities Shawn Connolly. “It definitely helped to have a collaborative energy partner.” The University’s partnership with PSEG also includes the University’s PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies which supports transdisciplinary research in climate change, energy studies, and community resilience.

Modern and Reliable

Because many universities and other similar facilities already have CHCP plants, adding a Microgrid typically makes them run more efficiently as well as reliably. Coincidentally, Hurricane Sandy has significantly heightened awareness of the need for and benefits of Microgrids, and they’re taking hold in many places across the country.

Fortunately, this year our students can go to class or practice, socialize and take their exams, without ever having to worry about the power going off, either from a hurricane or another turkey vulture.

And that’s exactly how it should be.

Watch videos and learn more about the Montclair State University microgrid here.