August 26, 2014 By Daniel C. Vock
A giant October snowstorm three years ago knocked out power to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., for the first time that anyone could remember. Wesleyan officials hope it will also be the last time. The college of 3,200 students, with help from the state, recently installed a "microgrid," which will allow it to keep the lights on at its facilities even if the surrounding community loses power.
Wesleyan can insulate itself from widespread power outages by generating its own power and making sure it can distribute that electricity to the 312 buildings on campus without depending on the outside grid. As an oasis of electricity, the college can now better serve its students and act as a staging area to coordinate disaster response for Middletown.
It is a concept that is gaining popularity across the country, especially in the storm-savaged Northeast, as communities try to improve their resilience. Officials in Massachusetts, Maryland and New York have also launched initiatives to support the creation of microgrids. Connecticut paid $694,000 of the $3.5 million cost to establish Wesleyan's microgrid, but it is the first of many the state is supporting. "When we talk about microgrids, it's a wicked hot topic. It's going to be in the dictionary next year as a new word, like 'Twitter,'" said Alan Rubacha, director of Wesleyan University's physical plant. "But it's existed for a long time."
In fact, microgrids go back to the dawn of the Electric Age in the 1880s, when Thomas Edison was working on what was essentially a microgrid, a self-contained system for generating and distributing power. Until now, they were most commonly used on some college campuses and military installations.
But as severe weather is becoming more common, the shortcomings of a large grid system are becoming more apparent. "When you have a major snowstorm, the branches fall on the above-ground power lines and the whole thing breaks down. When you have flooding, you have problems. When you have wind, you have problems," said Niek Veraart, a consultant with Louis Berger who worked with communities after Superstorm Sandy.