Bringing Microgrids to the District of Columbia

As the District of Columbia’s electric infrastructure ages and residents’ electric service becomes more unreliable[1], we must do everything in our power to encourage use of technologies which will provide consumers with reliable energy and take some of the burden off the main power grid. A microgrid is such a technology. A microgrid is “an electric distribution system that ties together two or more distributed generation resources.”[2] The microgrid “aggregate[es] and interconnect[s] small groups of customers onto a local grid.”[3] Electricity is generated on-site and distributed to the microgrid customers.[4]

Microgrids’ benefits are perfect for the District. A recent survey revealed that District residents experience 70% more power outages per year than residents of other major American cities, and the outages lasted twice as long.[5] Business Insider recently ranked DC’s electricity provider, Pepco, as the #1 ‘Most Hated Company in America,’ citing poor reliability and duration of outages.[6] The dense urban setting in the District offers great opportunities to incorporate businesses and residences with varied usage patterns, thus balancing the load and smoothing demand peaks.[7] Many microgrids have the ability to ‘island,’ or separate themselves from the main power grid, in the event of a power outage.[8] When the main power grid fails, the microgrid switches to ‘stand-alone’ mode instantly without the power ever going out.[9] This feature would be particularly beneficial for hospitals, universities, and both federal and District government buildings, for which power outages are the most damaging. Also, diversifying power sources makes our grid less vulnerable to national security threats.[10]

Despite the benefits of microgrids, there is currently not a single microgrid in the District.[11] The District of Columbia should encourage development of microgrids within the District by defining the term ‘microgrid,’ excluding microgrids from the definition of ‘public utility,’ and permitting construction of electrical conduits across streets and alleys.

The term ‘microgrid’ is currently not in any District statute or regulation. This regulatory uncertainty discourages investment. The District should enact legislation which clearly defines what a microgrid is, what size facilities qualify, how many customers it may serve, etc. The definition should clearly distinguish microgrids from utilities and from customer-generators with a single piece of distributed generation equipment.

Designation as a public utility is the primary obstacle to implementation of microgrids around the country.[12] The D.C. Code currently defines ‘public utility’ as, among other things, any entity “physically transmitting or distributing electricity in the District of Columbia to retail electric customers.” [13] This definition limits any electrical distribution system to a single building- essentially defeating the purpose of the microgrid. The definition of ‘public utility’ should be changed in the D.C. Code to exclude facilities which qualify as microgrids. This would prevent microgrids from being subject to the “administrative and financial burden” of extensive regulation and permitting as a public utility.[14]

Finally, the District should amend the D.C. Code to permit, under certain circumstances, construction of electrical conduits across streets and alleys. D.C. Code § 34-2501 prohibits any private party from laying such conduits or pipes across any street or alley, and it prohibits any such conduit or pipe from connecting to any property not owned by the permittee.[15] This makes operation of a microgrid nearly impossible.[16] The statute should be amended to provide that electrical conduits may be constructed across streets and alleys, and connecting buildings with various owners, in connection with a project qualifying as a microgrid, and subject to specific permitting procedures.

If the District takes these three steps- defining microgrid, excluding microgrids from the definition of public utility, and permitting construction of electrical conduits across streets and alleys- microgrid developers will feel far more confident about investing in projects within the District. Microgrids can help the District to improve the reliability of the electric service to its residents, balance loads to reduce peak demand, and supply consistent, uninterrupted power to vital government buildings in case of power outages on the main grid. Microgrids make sense for the District, and we should take these steps to bring them here.

 

-Shannon Huecker, Associate


[1] D.C. Council, Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, Recent Power Outages and the Reliability of the Electricity Distribution System (Nov. 21, 2008).

[2] Frederick R. Fucci, Arnold & Potter LLP, Alternative Energy in Commercial Real Estate and Multi-Family Housing: Application of Distributed Resources and Practical and Legal Ramifications, Real Estate Law and Practice Course Handbook Series 48 (2008), available at http:// http://www.arnoldporter.com/resources/documents/PLI_March2008_ PaperOnAlternativeEnergy3.pdf.

[3] Douglas King, Electric Power Micro-Grids: Opportunities and Challenges for an Emerging Distributed Energy Architecture (May 2006) ) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University), available at http://wpweb2.tepper.cmu.edu/ceic/pdfs_other/Doug_King_PhD_Thesis_2006.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Joe Stephens, Why Pepco Can’t Keep the Lights On, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/04/AR2010120403721.html (Post compared DC figures with the results of a 2009 survey of utility customers in other major cities).

[6] Business Insider, The 19 Most Hated Companies in America, available at http://www.businessinsider.com/most-hated-companies-america-2011-6?op=1.

[7] N.Y. State  Energy Research and Development Authority, Microgrids: An Assessment of the Value, Opportunities and Barriers to Deployment in New York State (Sept 2010), available at http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/~/media/Files/Publications/Research/Electic%20Power%20Delivery/10-35-microgrids.ashx?sc_database=web.

[8] Meena Agrawal & Arvind Mittal, Microgrid Technological Activities Around the Globe: A Review, 7 Int’l. J. of Research and Reviews in Applied Sci. 2, available at http://www.arpapress.com/Volumes/Vol7Issue2/IJRRAS_7_2_07.pdf.

[9] Id.

[11] Howard University is currently developing the first microgrid within the District, and the Department of Homeland Security has proposed developing one at the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus.  Melanie Kaplan, Howard University Plans Washington’s First Microgrid, Smart Planet (July 28, 2010), http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/howard-university-plans-washingtons-first-microgrid/4259.

[12] Douglas King, Electric Power Micro-Grids: Opportunities and Challenges for an Emerging Distributed Energy Architecture (May 2006) ) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University), available at http://wpweb2.tepper.cmu.edu/ceic/pdfs_other/Doug_King_PhD_Thesis_2006.pdf.

[13] See D.C. Code § 34-214, § 34-207.

[14] King, supra note 13.

[15] D.C. Code § 34-2501.

[16] The Howard University microgrid is possible without violating D.C. Code § 34-2501 because Howard owns the alleys and streets on campus.\

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