By Steve Pullins, SVP CTO, AlphaStruxure

Did you know there were 540 new microgrids installed in the U.S. during COVID? Currently, there are roughly 1,800 microgrids around our country with the largest area of growth for this technology in the commercial and industrial sectors. But what are they exactly?

What is a microgrid?

In the most simplistic terms, a microgrid is an onsite, self-contained grid that leverages renewable energy, energy storage and baseload generators to create and maintain power. Microgrids can create islands of power once the grid goes down, maintaining essential electricity supplies for various needs. If equipped with advanced software systems, these microgrids can support the larger grid with real-time optimization of diverse distributed energy resource assets that make up a microgrid.

In contrast to utilities, microgrids are not supplying a large amount of energy to multiple sites. Utilities are focused on optimizing their energy enterprise. Microgrids optimize a single customer’s enterprise on the use of energy. 

When it comes to energy, commercial and industrial firms share a few common objectives: reliability, flattening the cost profile, sustainability, and ability to withstand weather events – also known as resilience. The best way to support a multi-objective type of environment for a commercial or industrial firm is to have a microgrid because the flexibility is there to support, cater to, and improve each of these objectives.

A new set of eyes for New York

In January of 2018, AlphaStruxure was tasked with building out the energy and sustainability aspects of JFK New Terminal One (NTO) – a state-of-the-art terminal that combines three terminal spaces into a massive set of eyes for New York city. 

My team was tasked to transform JFK into a fully resilient airport that can function off-grid during power disruptions, produce lower carbon intensity, efficient, locally-generated energy in a cost-effective way. In doing so, NTO is the first fully resilient, grid-independent airport transit hub in the New York region. 

AlphaStruxure solutions at NTO

There are three aspects that make NTO innovative: solar power, its four electrical substations, and its ability to supply thermal power.

The history of solar in U.S. airports has been small arrays. This is different. This will be the biggest rooftop solar array on any airport in the country and in New York City, a 7.6MG solar array. Solar will address about 14% of the terminal without a carbon footprint. And with the addition of 3.7 MW of fuel cells and 4 MWh of battery energy storage, we are well on the way to creating a solid path to net zero. When NTO opens, the AlphaStruxure microgrid will deliver a 38% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and effectively eliminate criteria pollutants (NOx, SOx, and particulate matter) compared to the grid, which improves air quality in the surrounding community. Over time with the use of renewable natural gas and, later, green hydrogen, the terminal plans to become net zero. 

The different substations provide resilience to the terminal. We split up the microgrid into four stations and replicated them. They are almost identical – the solar, fuel cells, batteries, and absorption chillers are distributed to each system. In this way, it ups the resilience and reliability of the operation to another magnitude. This terminal will never lose power – it will never be without. 

Schneider Electric’s sophisticated software is managing the microgrid which allows us to federate those four stations to optimize operations from an economics and sustainability perspective. 

The third piece is that we are not just doing electricity, we are supplying a substantial amount of the chill water needed at the terminal. Later on, when all the terminal phases are built out, we will also supply a portion of the hot water. 

Oh, and by the way, we’ll also have the ability to power about 160 electric vehicles on the airside of the terminal. 

Tennessee’s emerging role

Thinking about microgrids and the Tennessee region, I have to give a huge shoutout to Silicon Ranch. They’ve opened up doors as a Tennessee-based company with their hundreds of solar projects – which is completely different than anything we’ve done in the Tennessee Valley before. 

There are also several new lithium production facilities and battery plants in the state, and these major industrial operations will provide an opportunity for microgrids to supply reliable power, providing a new emerging role for Tennessee to capitalize on the energy industry and incorporate microgrids into the solution. 

As more people start to realize there are other off-grid energy options out there, they are going to start to ask questions about projects like NTO and learn more about the value of microgrids. In Tennessee, we are at the beginning of that path, and microgrids will be a part of that future. 

Sign up for TAEBC’s newsletter to learn more about our members, advanced energy news and upcoming events. Or, if you’re not already a member, become a member today!