The project is a joint venture between the university and Pareto Energy, a District-based company that specializes in microgrid design and development. The microgrid will be built with the help of students and faculty at the school’s Center for Energy Systems and Control.
“This will give our students the chance to do more meaningful practical research,” said James Momoh, the center’s director and an engineering professor. “They’ll have the ability to test and demonstrate [microgrid] tools.”
As part of the project, two natural gas generators will be installed on campus that will initially provide about half of the campus’s power. That share will eventually grow. The microgrid could be in place within two years, although some regulatory issues still need to be worked out, officials said.
Pepco officials declined to offer details about the university’s microgrid project, citing “customer confidentiality restrictions.”
‘Back to the future’
A smaller power grid that operates parallel to a larger power grid is not new. Officials with the Energy Department note that the United States gradually shifted from a decentralized electrical grid to the system that now exists.
But in recent years, microgrids have grown in popularity as officials seek solutions to improve the reliability of the aging U.S. energy infrastructure and try to incorporate renewable energy sources, such as solar power, into the grid.
“In the beginning, the whole system was based on microgrids,” said Peter Asmus, a senior analyst with Pike Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides analyses of clean technology markets. “We’re kind of going back to the future.”
According to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a nonprofit group that promotes electricity reliability through microgrid technology, power failures cost businesses and consumers about $150 billion a year. About 500,000 Americans spend at least two hours without electricity every day.
In the Washington region, where Pepco provides power to 778,000 customers, businesses and residents have grown accustomed to outages in good weather and bad. In a recent survey, the utility ranked near the bottom in customer satisfaction among the 25 largest investor-owned energy utilities. According to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, the average Pepco customer suffers outages of about 300 minutes each year, compared with the national average of 200 minutes.
Guy Warner, chief executive of Pareto Energy, said that if deployed correctly, microgrids such as the one at Howard could improve power reliability in the region.