Action Guide Identifies Barriers to Community Energy—Resilient Microgrids Could Have Helped Maine Bounce Back from Storm Damage
Of the many economic, energy, and environmental benefits of a clean, modernized community energy system, one might stand out for electric customers across the Northeast right now: resiliency.
More than 1.5 million homes lost power when hurricane-force winds and torrential rain battered New England in late October. In Maine, toppled trees blocked roads, damaged homes and cars, and pulled down power lines, contributing to outages that left nearly two-thirds of the state without power. The emergency response was hardly a picture of resilience: despite the efforts of more than 3,000 state agency and utility workers from 14 states and three Canadian provinces, it took more than a week to restore service statewide.
Neighbors rallied to keep each other warm and fed, but updating the way we plan, manage, and invest in our electric grid would give communities the freedom to do even more. Acadia Center’s Community|EnergyVision Action Guide highlights how communities can create more resilient energy systems by leveraging available technologies to generate, distribute, and use power in a cleaner, more consumer-friendly way. The Action Guide also reveals where current state rules limit—and even prohibit—community action.
New England’s recent and historic wind storm is a stark reminder that obstacles to community energy leave residents vulnerable. Power outages are inconvenient, dangerous, and expensive—and so are the workarounds many municipalities, businesses, and residents turn to during lingering blackouts.
- Sales of portable fossil-fueled generators spike, boosting profits for manufacturers and retailers, but creating safety risks for homeowners and line workers, worsening local air quality, and creating a maddening din as whole neighborhoods run noisy generators.
- Even at critical facilities like hospitals, water and sewage treatment plants, and emergency shelters, back-up generators may not be effective for extended periods. During the October storm, eight million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the Merrimack River when back-up generators failed at a Massachusetts treatment plant.
- CMP has 30 days to provide an estimate for storm recovery costs, but in New Hampshire, where fewer than half as many customers lost power, damage is expected to top $35 million. Whatever the final tally, ratepayers will pick up most of the tab.
Communities need better, more resilient energy systems, and they deserve the freedom to access and control clean, affordable, local energy. Microgrids are a key component of this clean energy future. These self-contained power systems can combine distributed renewable generation resources with demand optimization and energy storage to serve their immediate geographical area. Microgrids can operate as part of the main electrical grid or go into “island” mode to operate separately from the grid during power outages.
Microgrids improve resiliency because they provide electrical service to a concentrated area and their generation and storage sources can be distributed across that area—with multiple rooftop solar installations, for example. This compact, yet decentralized, approach makes microgrids more rugged overall, reducing their vulnerability to the service disruptions that go along with long-distance transmission and distribution lines.
Microgrids became a focus of many state resiliency plans after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and those on-line in Texas helped keep stores and hospitals open during Hurricane Harvey. Even in good weather, microgrids add value to a community. Vermont’s Stafford Hill solar and storage microgrid not only powers Rutland’s emergency shelter, it yields $380,000-$700,000 annually in energy storage benefits and land-lease fees.
Maine communities are ripe for microgrids, yet there is no clear authority for municipalities to act. Acadia Center’s Community|EnergyVision Action Guide notes that communities would have a clearer path if policymakers established specific rules enabling developers and stakeholders to collaborate on microgrids that enable local clean energy generation, use distributed energy storage, and improve control over energy consumption; add resilient capacity and stability to the larger grid; and operate independently at critical times.
When legislators return to Augusta in January, they will consider An Act to Enable Municipalities Working with Utilities to Establish Microgrids (LD 257). There was an informational meeting on the bill last month—just days before the majority of Mainers lost power—and there will be public hearings and work sessions in early 2018. Please join Acadia Center in sharing the impact of an outdated, inflexible power grid and demanding expanded community energy options to enhance resiliency.
Finding New Frontiers: Clean Energy on Aquidneck Island
This summer, an Acadia Center blog post highlighted the clean energy moment happening in Connecticut. Policymakers in that state are currently deciding what its energy future will look like for years to come, and stakeholders must take notice—but Connecticut isn’t the only state having a clean energy moment. In fact, you might say the whole region, country, even world is having a clean energy moment. At Acadia Center, we strive to capture a vision that will help more communities, of whatever size, embrace these moments, and recently in Rhode Island we found ourselves in a room with more than one hundred locals excited by that vision.
At Acadia Center’s latest forum, community members came together from Aquidneck Island’s three towns to celebrate achievements, explore possibilities, and identify specific opportunities for using clean energy locally. The audience heard from two state representatives, Lauren Carson and Deborah Ruggiero, and two state commissioners, Marion Gold of the Public Utilities Commission and Carol Grant of the Office of Energy Resources. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with these four women as well as with panelists from National Grid, People’s Power & Light, the City of West Warwick, and the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. Acadia Center’s Rhode Island Director, Abigail Anthony, also presented the basic principles of EnergyVision, with particular emphasis on Community|EnergyVision.
The event was called “Solar and Beyond” and it highlighted the community’s solar potential by featuring sponsors from solar companies, who were available to answer questions before and after the panels (a big thank you to Newport Solar, RGS, and Direct Energy Solar). Other topics that drew interest included Block Island’s new offshore wind farm, transportation’s role in the clean energy future, energy efficiency, and the possibility of going 100% renewable.
Acadia Center was privileged to have two excellent partners in this venture, the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission (AIPC) and Emerald Cities Collaborative. We are excited to continue working with these organizations to harness the momentum built at the forum and support effective policies to make the community’s vision a reality. Working with AIPC and Emerald Cities, Acadia Center is developing a forward-looking policy agenda to remove barriers to community energy and build a coalition of support from municipal leaders on Aquidneck Island. Acadia Center is promoting several key actions that Aquidneck Island leaders can take to advance community energy, including:
- Expand the use of local energy resources to avoid the construction of infrastructure projects and reduce costs. In December, the state’s Energy Efficiency & Resource Management Council will propose reforms to utility planning that are designed to proactively deploy energy efficiency and distributed energy resources, like solar, in “highly-utilized” areas of the electric grid to ensure energy reliability for all.
- Adopt Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to provide long-term clean energy financing for businesses and residents. Aquidneck Island towns should authorize Commercial PACE, which offers financing for clean energy projects on commercial, industrial, agricultural, non-profit, and multifamily properties. Municipal leaders should also advocate for strong consumer protection elements in the roll-out of Residential PACE in Rhode Island.
- Expand access to community solar. Rhode Island laws passed in 2016 create more opportunities for residential and qualified low- and moderate-income housing developments to benefit from solar projects. However, the Community Remote Net Metering program is currently capped at 30 MW. Aquidneck Island leaders can support advocacy efforts to remove this cap and promote community solar projects.
Over the coming months, Acadia Center will work with AIPC and Emerald Cities to build a strong coalition of support for these policies and others. Together we hope to lay a foundation for community energy in Rhode Island that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and better serve consumers. By seizing this clean energy moment, Aquidneck Island will secure an energy future that is reliable, cost effective, and community driven.