The pounding that the Northeast has taken from savage storms over the last 14 months has inspired a remarkable bit of innovation that could put one state at the vanguard of American energy policy.
Early next year, Connecticut will begin vetting plans for towns to build their own "microgrids": self-sustaining downtown networks, some powered by state-of-the-art fuel cells, that will allow them to keep fire and police departments, city halls, pharmacies, grocery stores, shelters and other key facilities running when the wider electrical grid goes dark.
The initiative was born from the wreckage of two late-2011 storms: Tropical Storm Irene and a fast-moving nor’easter. The scale of the destruction, and the length of time it took for utilities to restore power to customers, prompted a surge of interest in new methods to protect communities from their reliance on the grid.
Connecticut set aside $15 million for a pilot program to encourage towns and businesses to develop microgrids - the first of its kind. Then, on Oct. 29, just as the state was preparing to send out applications, Hurricane Sandy hit. Tens of millions of people along the East Coast were left without power. Thousands lost their homes to flooding. Dozens died.
Microgrids, a fringe concept longing for mainstream appeal, were sounding a lot more attractive.
“I’ve been doing this for more than a decade, and I’ve never seen so much attention paid to this,” said Tom Bourgeois, deputy director of the Energy and Climate Center at Pace University Law School in New York.
Bourgeois travels the Northeast preaching the gospel of microgrids, and believes that they may finally be gaining a foothold in public consciousness.
“Sandy has got people galvanized around microgrids - as part of the solution, at least - in a way I’ve not seen,” he said.
Scientists and energy companies have been researching these networks for years, not only as a way to protect people from storms and other catastrophes, but also as a cleaner and more efficient way to burn fuel. They may become more popular as climate change increases the frequency of severe weather and flooding.
Microgrids are often powered by fuel cells, which typically run on natural gas and produce no pollution. It is also possible to use combustion turbines.
A few universities, hospitals, jails and industrial sites around the country use them, and the U.S. Department of Defense wants to develop microgrids on some military bases. But the Connecticut program appears to be the furthest anyone's gone toward developing "multiple user" microgrids that could be applied at the municipal level.
This is not a revolution, at least not yet. Of the handful of states walloped by the three big storms, Connecticut is the one to openly embrace the technology. There are more subtle indications that the idea may spread in New York City, where a few sites, including New York University and Co-op City, didn’t lose power because they developed internal “cogeneration” systems, similar to microgrids, fueled by natural gas.
Bourgeois and other advocates envision taking that many steps forward, to “zero-energy neighborhoods” and beyond.
Their challenge is getting the public on board, and negotiating support from the operators of the traditional energy grid – public utility companies.
It happened in Connecticut because of three factors: the state is a center of America's fuel cell research.; its governor, Dan Malloy, is a longtime proponent of microgrids; and it has endured a series of massive power outages that prompted a backlash against its primary electrical utility.
It began with Irene, in August 2011, and continued with the freak storm that followed a month later, dumping record amounts of wet, heavy snow across a broad swath of the Northeast. The weight of the snow snapped trees and sent them tumbling onto power lines and across roads. Utility and public works crews, just weeks after dealing with the havoc from Irene, were unable to contain the damage.
No one took it harder than Connecticut, where 880,000 people lost power during this second storm, breaking the record of 800,000 set during Irene. As the cold days and unlit nights passed, people began running out of food and supplies. They grew panicky. Many remained out of reach by emergency crews. Some took to hacking their way through fallen trees. Many of those fortunate enough to have generators began to run out of gas; others had theirs stolen from their yards.
Nearly two weeks went by before everyone in Connecticut got their electricity back.
"It never got to the point of ‘Mad Max,’ but people were getting very desperate, and I was very worried about my family," said Tom Roy, the public works director in Simsbury, a heavily wooded suburb of 24,000 outside Hartford that suffered serious damage. "It was absolutely a disaster."
Frightened and livid, residents and public officials, including Malloy, began lashing out at the state's largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power. Although the one-two punch of severe storms was extremely rare, CL&P came under fire for failing to properly prepare and respond. A myriad of investigations undertaken by government agencies and private contractors detailed the utility's missteps, recommended economic penalties, and prescribed measures to prevent it from happening again.
The efforts culminated last summer, when Malloy signed a law that codified many of those suggestions. Among the provisions was a program that set aside $15 million in grants to help municipalities, energy companies and utilities develop microgrids.
This pilot project, overseen by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, aims to get a handful of microgrids running in 2013 and then decide whether they're worth duplicating elsewhere.
The concept was a serious policy consideration before Oct. 29, 2011, but the storm "made us move faster," DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said.
Sara Bronin, program director at the University of Connecticut's Center for Energy & Environmental Law, has studied microgrid efforts around the country. The Connecticut approach, she said, has made the state a "testing ground."
But she cautioned that in addition to the technological challenges, there are social and political issues to consider: how to choose what parts of town benefit, and whether to update existing laws to give public utilities the incentive to support microgrids on a wider basis.
"I don't know of any other publicly provided microgrid projects, mostly because state-level utility laws don't allow multiple-user microgrids to happen," Bronin said.
Typically, public utilities would be skittish about the idea of a town building its own mini electrical network. That, apparently, was the case in Connecticut.
Malloy said Connecticut's public utilities didn’t embrace the idea until after the storm. "I think they understand they're playing with fire if they don't get on board," the governor said.
Bill Quinlan, senior vice president of emergency preparedness for CL&P, said the utility was committed to cooperating with the state to develop microgrids.
Quinlan called the state effort "cutting edge," but said it remained "questionable" if microgrids would turn out to be economically feasible. Other measures, like burying wires underground, may be more practical.
"I think it's important to get through the pilot program and analyze and decide what's the best technique," Quinlan said.
Already, dozens of towns have expressed interest in applying for the pilot program.
They don't necessarily envision themselves as high-tech hubs of the green movement, just seizing an opportunity.
Simsbury is one of them.
Before the 2011 snowstorm, Simsbury officials didn't know anything about microgrids, Roy said. But after hearing about the state's plan, they began to wonder if it wasn't possible not only to build their own microgrid, but to go a step further and create a downtown power district that could attract more business to town.
Because of the storm, "we started identifying things that we hadn't looked at before," Roy said. "We took a fresh look at our town and how to be better positioned if we were to ever suffer a long-duration power outage again."
When Sandy hit late last month, 41 percent of Simsbury went black, an experience that strenghened the town's commitment to the microgrid project. "Sadly," Roy said, "these events are becoming all too common for us."
Officials there aren't yet sure if their microgrid proposal would include fuel cells or more traditional power sources, like turbines or generators. "Nothing's off the table," Roy said. "But just going through this process is getting us excited about it."