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Federal facilities get off the grid

Dec. 2, 2012 - 01:33PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Agencies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars building and maintaining their own backup “microgrids” — miniature replicas of larger commercial power grids that generate and transmit energy from multiple sources, such as solar panels.
Agencies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars building and maintaining their own backup “microgrids” — miniature replicas of larger commercial power grids that generate and transmit energy from multiple sources, such as solar panels. ()

For many federal managers, October’s megastorm Sandy was simply the latest reminder of how vulnerable their operations are to power outages. The storm left more than 7 million people and countless businesses and government offices without power.

“Every year we have big outages, and not all are weather-related,” said Julieta Giraldez, an electrical engineer at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. “The grid is aging; it’s a big, interconnected grid that can create big outages.”

Besides big storms — such as Sandy, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and 2010’s “Snowmaggedon” — other things threaten to disconnect power to critical government operations: terrorism, cyber attacks, heat waves and an aging, overloaded power grid.

The result is agencies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars building and maintaining their own backup “microgrids” — miniature replicas of larger commercial power grids that generate and transmit energy from multiple sources.

Tom Glennon, engineering director at Honeywell Building Solutions, said the Defense Department, health-related agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration are among those investing aggressively in indigenous power generation at their most critical facilities.

“They are clearly trying to get to the point where they are getting power reliability and power independence,” Glennon said.

He said microgrids are not for every federal facility but will be important for larger installations and campuses that need to perform critical functions without interruption.

The agencies working on grid independence include:

• The Defense Department, which is installing microgrids at 10 installations.

That includes the Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, which is constructing a 20-megawatt solar field, which will be combined with a microgrid already in place and allow the installation to run independent of the local commercial grid.

• The Department of Homeland Security’s planned headquarters complex in southeast Washington will include a 25-megawatt utility plant and microgrid. Funding for the project, however, has been cut drastically in recent years and its fate is unclear.

• The Veteran Affairs Department’s new Las Vegas Medical Center has the ability to run without outside power, water or sewers for four days. It also is in the process of awarding a contract for a 3.2-megawatt solar panel system that will allow it to run for longer periods independent of the local commercial grid.

VA hospitals are already required to have backup diesel generators, but new facilities will be able to generate their own power to run longer independent of the commercial grid, according to VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda.

• The Food and Drug Administration is embarked on a $213 million expansion of its power generation facilities at its White Oak campus in Maryland. The new utility plant will include two 7.5-megawatt turbine generators, a 4.5-megawatt natural gas generator, two 2.3-megawatt diesel standby generators and a 5-megawatt steam generator — all together capable of powering more than 23,000 homes and allowing the FDA to generate all the energy it needs for critical functions. The new power sources will join an existing utility plant, thousands of solar panels and a pair of turbine generators in providing energy to the facility.

Glennon, whose company, Honeywell, is building the power generation plant at White Oak, said its microgrid technology allows the campus to separate immediately from the larger commercial power network when it detects a problem.

Giraldez said the frequency of power outages will only continue to increase, and she has seen increased interest in microgrids at all levels. She predicted agencies will increasingly develop business cases for microgrids by factoring in the economic losses suffered during power outages.

At DoD, the case for grid independence often includes a strong national security dimension — many U.S.-based DoD installations directly support military operations thousands of miles away.

“We have to be able to complete the mission without the grid,” said Philip Barton, the microgrid program director at energy contractor Schneider Electric.

Barton said the majority of solicitations the company has received from agencies include energy security as one of the main requirements. He said every agency has critical systems — such as data centers — that need to be functioning in a power outage or natural disaster.

Microgrids run in tandem with local commercial grids, but when a commercial grid shuts down, the microgrid disconnects and runs its facilities on its own, Glennon said.

Twentynine Palms, a Marine Corps base in California, is home to 27,000 military and civilian personnel and holds large-scale training exercises. It uses its own power plant and solar panel field to provide its own power and has installed a microgrid that can disconnect from the civilian grid — which DoD refers to as “island mode.”

If the microgrids at Twentynine Palms and the other installations work as expected, the Defense Department will expand the program to hundreds of other installations nationwide.

Ed Bursk head of the microgrid federal business division at contractor Siemens Government Technologies, said cybersecurity threats and natural disasters are pushing agencies to evaluate their dependence on the civilian grid.

“We are really starting to see an increased interest across the DoD space,” Bursk said. He said civilian agencies were slower to catch on, but they also are exploring grid independence.

DoD has earmarked $9 billion in planned investments to improve energy use in military operations between fiscal 2013 and 2017. This includes $1.6 billion in fiscal 2013, according to DoD.

“Over the coming years, you will see this really expand out into other arenas where you need to have a continuous and secure operation,” Bursk said.

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