In February 2018, the City of Pittsfield was selected in a competitive solicitation as one of 14 communities across the Commonwealth to study the feasibility of an urban microgrid solution. The study, funded through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) is being developed by The Microgrid Institute, a microgrid-focussed consultancy and is currently in its third phase of study (four phases total). Here is the list of all 14 awardees statewide.
MassCEC Microgrid illustration (https://www.masscec.com/)
So, what is a Microgrid? The electric grid and related utility business models are undergoing dramatic transformation and facing new challenges and market pressures. The future of the electric grid promises a platform that delivers resilient and clean electricity to customers. Microgrids are considered one solution to challenges facing communities and the electric grid. Microgrids are defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources (DERs) with clearly defined boundaries that acts as a single, controllable entity and can connect and disconnect from the grid to operate in both grid-connected or island mode. Microgrids have the ability to:
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Enable integration of renewable energy sources
Support and modernize the local electricity distribution system
Provide energy resilience for critical facilities during electrical grid outages
Also, here is an Informational video from RedVector Education on Microgrids, in summary.
So, Why Pittsfield? Multiple factors support the project’s objectives, including the need for resilient and sustainable energy in the City of Pittsfield.
A snapshot of Pittsfield's urban and critical infrastrucutre density
Resilient Critical Services: The City of Pittsfield is the largest city in Massachusetts’s western-most county, with infrastructure providing critical services for Pittsfield’s 44,000 residents and many of Berkshire County’s 130,000. Resilient energy for these critical services will enable the City of Pittsfield to minimize the effects of long-duration utility outages and to accelerate recovery in the aftermath of disruptive events such as hurricanes and winter storms in western Massachusetts.
Currently, the City’s critical facilities have only limited energy resilience. The Fire Department, for example, has a small gas-fired generator that can operate the main station lights and doors for a matter of hours, and Berkshire Medical Center has some backup power capacity and has installed a new CHP system. The City of Pittsfield Downtown Microgrid (CPDM) Project seeks to evaluate current resilient energy needs and systems, and will assess solutions for sustainable and cost-effective alternatives.
Economic Development and Cost-Savings: The City of Pittsfield and Berkshire County have struggled with economic stagnation and a declining population, creating substantial economic and infrastructure burdens for the community. Pittsfield is a Commonwealth-designated Gateway City – a midsize urban center that anchors a regional economy, but that faces stubborn economic challenges related to industrial decline. In terms of per capita income, Pittsfield ranks 324th of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, with approximately 30% of the City’s households earning less than $25,000 a year. The City of Pittsfield has approximately 922 low-income housing units within its boundaries, of which more than 420 will be considered in the proposed study. The City of Pittsfield is facing the prospect of budget deficiencies due to an imminent tax-levy ceiling, which will result in expected budget overages of $10 million by 2020, and $18 million by 2022. With fewer options for municipalities to rectify such budgetary situations, creative energy options become part of the recipe for supporting community resilience and sustainability. The need for resilient and affordable energy is especially acute in a community like Pittsfield, with a substantial population of residents who are especially vulnerable to the effects of long-duration utility outages.
Sustainability and Environmental Benefits: The Pittsfield community has demonstrated a commitment to sustainability and renewable energy investment; already Pittsfield is home to several commercial and residential solar installations, including a 2.9 MW photovoltaic (PV) power system located on the City’s decommissioned landfill, and a 1.5 MW ground-mounted PV array owned by Eversource. Potential for solar infrastructure and battery energy storage remains largely undeveloped, however, and the Project Team has identified several facilities with potential for local renewable energy production to support sustainability and resilience in Downtown Pittsfield.
The City also has dedicated substantial effort toward energy efficiency and conservation. For example, investments in new energy management systems at City Hall saved Pittsfield $13,000 a year in energy costs, and Berkshire Medical Center upgraded lighting with LEDs to reduce operating costs by 75 percent at two parking garages. Further, the community’s industrial history – including General Electric’s critical departure from the region, coupled with irreversible environmental degradation – makes the City of Pittsfield a prime location and test case for addressing issues of environmental justice, energy sustainability, and resilience. PCB contamination and industrial decline have created major challenges to Pittsfield’s economic development and restoration of brownfield sites. Modernization of local energy systems to increase resilience and reliance on local renewable energy sources will support Pittsfield’s efforts to attract and retain businesses and restore the community’s environmental legacy.
Through the proposed feasibility assessment, the CPDM team will investigate practical and scalable energy sustainability and efficiency solutions that will benefit the community at large, and will identify creative and resilient options for reducing costs associated with energy (for such services as street lighting, municipal building electric costs, first responder services, and park facilities), while also reducing the community’s fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas footprint. The Project also will evaluate the feasibility of renewable energy and efficiency investments capable of reducing or offsetting substantially all of the proposed microgrid facilities’ fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas footprint.
Education and Workforce Development
The Project also supports public education and workforce development objectives in Pittsfield and the western Massachusetts region. The University of Massachusetts has pledged technical support to the Project Team, including design modeling and development assistance, through the UMass Clean Energy Extension (CEE) and UMass-Amherst Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. Additionally, the Project study considers resilient energy options for local school facilities, including Pittsfield High School in Downtown Pittsfield, establishing a local showcase for advanced generation and energy-management technologies.
The Project’s objectives address a wide range of local public interests, and reflect the community’s strong commitment to improving its sustainability, resilience, and economic health. Accordingly, key local stakeholders have expressed their strong support for the Project, and have committed to help ensure its success.
Local Electricity Assets
In addition to the existing PV systems identified above, the Pittsfield community is host to a 27 year-old natural gas-fired generating plant operated by Milepost Power (formerly Maxim Power). The New England ISO includes the 181 MW gas-fired plant in its reliability must-run resources, and it generates sufficient energy to serve a substantial portion of the community’s needs. However, in practical terms its interconnection configuration may not allow it to cost-effectively serve a Downtown microgrid. The study would, in part, consider the potential for utilizing the gas-fired plant along with other local generation systems to support a wide-area microgrid embedded within the community’s existing utility distribution system.
Even in such a design scenario, however, any above-ground distribution lines still would be vulnerable to local severe weather events, such as ice storms and major hurricanes. Within the study area, the local utility system includes a combination of both overhead distribution lines and buried cables. The study will evaluate local distribution system configuration and identify potential zones for resilient energy using onsite generation resources and underground service segments.
Although not all customers in the Downtown area bring identical requirements for resiliency, sustainability, and economics, the Project Team anticipates that a cost-effective community microgrid can be developed for Pittsfield, using mature industry technologies, and operated to serve a wide range of customer requirements.
Local Electric Service Disruptions
In the past decade, numerous major winter storms have caused significant electricity outages in Berkshire County. Like the rest of New England, the area has experienced such extreme weather with increasing frequency. Although Pittsfield was spared the direct impact of Superstorm Sandy, extended outages in nearby areas have demonstrated to local leaders the cost of failing to ensure that local infrastructure is sufficiently resilient against these increasing threats.
The proposed Project is intended to study the feasibility of a system capable of withstanding events of the magnitude that frequently cause long-duration outages in the area, including ice storms, blizzards, derechos, and hurricanes.
Ownership and Operating Model
The Project Team is considering multiple structural models for the project. Options that include embedding all microgrid zones within the utility distribution system would maintain the existing ownership and operating structure for utility assets within the microgrid area, with the addition of new onsite generation, energy storage, and energy management systems to provide resilient energy for interconnected loads. These new onsite systems could be owned by multiple entities, but they would be subject to operating control by the utility to sustain microgrid operations.
Other options that may be evaluated in the study include ownership of some or all microgrid assets by a special-purpose entity (SPE), potentially through a public-private partnership (P3) comprised of the City, BMC, PHA, and other local stakeholder organizations. Under such scenarios, microgrid customers would enter long-term energy service agreements with the SPE to provide resilient energy services.
Resilient Electricity ‘microgrids’ may be built in Pittsfield, Palmer, Montague https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/02/electricity_microgrids_may_be.html
Pittsfield explores Green Solution for Emergency Energy System https://www.wamc.org/post/pittsfield-explores-green-solution-emergency-energy-system
Details on the 14 Massachusetts Community Microgrid Projects that Won Funding https://microgridknowledge.com/community-microgrid-projects-massachusetts/For more on the MassCEC Microgrid Feasibility Study Program click here.
Summary of Conceptual Microgrid presented to The City of Pittsifled Green Commission March 2017