What is being called a first-of-its-kind community microgrid is taking shape in upstate New York. A partnership comprising two universities, a national laboratory, one of the world's leading electrical manufacturers, the region's electric utility and several other participants is working through the issues to create the innovative microgrid in the village of Potsdam, N.Y.

New York's North Country, where Potsdam is located, is no stranger to harsh weather. A 1998 ice storm hammered the area for four days, paralyzing cities and cutting power to 130,000 people. Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 struck neighboring Vermont, flooding nearly every river and stream, isolating rural towns and blacking out 50,000 customers. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 didn't reach that far north, but it devastated downstate and drove home the realization that climate change would greatly increase the frequency and impact of severe weather events.

In early 2014, Potsdam-based Clarkson University proposed a campus microgrid to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. A microgrid is a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources with clearly defined electrical boundaries that act as a single, controllable entity with respect to the traditional grid. It can operate in either grid-connected or island mode. NYSERDA turned down the proposal, but the region's electric utility liked the idea, says Thomas Ortmeyer, professor of electrical engineering at Clarkson.


In July, NYSERDA awarded the project $381,000. The U.S. Dept. of Energy granted GE a further $1.2 million, to which GE is adding $300,000, to develop an enhanced microgrid control system with new capabilities, such as frequency regulation. This advanced system will be used to provide resilient, high-quality power to critical loads in Potsdam during power disruptions. It will be the key element in keeping the town's electricity system up and running for as much as two weeks if the microgrid is disconnected from the main power station, GE officials say.

The project was officially launched on Sept. 30, 2014, and is still in the research stage, Ortmeyer says. About 10 to 12 electrical customers will be covered, and 6 to 9 MW of generation will be needed for the microgrid. Power sources have not yet been decided, but the total could include 3 MW of combined heat and power, 2 MW of solar photovoltaics, 2 MW of energy storage and 900 kW or more of hydroelectric power, GE says. "We'll be looking to add 2-4 MW of generation," Ortmeyer says.

The DOE-funded initiative will augment the community's plans to construct a new underground system for power and communications during emergency situations. About five miles of cable, operating at 13.2 kV, will be buried. This system will connect emergency service providers, utilities, power-generation sources and staging areas, along with housing, fuel, and food providers.

"The underground network is completely new. We have just one very short piece of underground available now—that would be less than 10% of the total," Ortmeyer says. Numerous technical questions are still to be answered, including the overall technology of the system, grounding and operational issues. Even the schedule and the total cost have yet to be determined, and the engineering design firm has not yet been selected. GE has announced that its DOE-funded controller project will begin with 18 months of engineering and design, followed by a six-month testing period at NREL, where a microgrid simulating Potsdam's infrastructure needs will be set up.

National Grid is participating in this project to learn key lessons about microgrid operation, says spokeswoman Virginia Limmiatis. "This is a new type of technology that has never existed in terms of the partnering businesses. It's not a microgrid to supply power for one location; it will supply power to multiple locations," she says. "For National Grid, this is a demonstration project to see what does this look like and how does it work and does it make sense."

In February, NYSERDA announced the $40-million NY Prize Community Grid Competition to promote the design and building of community microgrids. It is aiming to fund 25 feasibility studies this year, ultimately leading to construction of five community microgrid projects.

"National Grid approached us to expand our concept to include National Grid and also the other entities in Potsdam, particularly Potsdam village and Canton-Potsdam Hospital and several of the other, larger loads that would participate in disaster response," Ortmeyer says. Through the spring and summer, other partners were recruited: GE Global Research, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, SUNY Potsdam and Schenectady-based Nova Energy Specialists.