At the Forefront of Change – Inside the New York Prize

 By Philip Gonski

Hurricane Sandy and the Great Blackout wreaked havoc upon the state of New York crippling infrastructure, homes and businesses. Out of the darkness, a novel project to innovate the electrical power grid, New York Prize, seeks to explore alternatives to traditional means of both power generation and distribution. The impacts and lessons learned from the competition have the potential to upend conventional technology, regulatory policies and the utility business model.

New Yorkers will not soon forget Sandy: Many Long Island communities were without power for several weeks, clean drinking water sources were rendered unsafe, wastewater facilities overflowed, and many hospitals had to be evacuated after running out of fuel for their generators. Several hospitals and facilities still remain inoperable after three years. The wrath of Sandy varied greatly from one part of New York to another -- large areas of Staten Island and most of lower Manhattan were without power while many portions of Brooklyn and Queens were spared and able to provide emergency services to other neighborhoods.

As part of a broad effort to improve energy infrastructure resilience in the face of future superstorms, and to accelerate the modernization of the electric grid, New York is in the process of implementing Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). REV is a policy and regulatory initiative that will have the effect of, among other things, enabling community based resilient microgrids. Microgrids are distributed energy sources shared between critical facilities, and able to operate independently of the power grid. The New York Prize competition seeks to promote the development of microgrids.

In Stage 1, 83 communities and their economic and engineering partners were awarded funding to develop preliminary technical and economic models for the implementation of the microgrid. These community microgrids consist of fire stations, hospitals, and water purification systems, connected with their own shared distributed asset. Communities and locations were chosen based upon the greatest risk to the population during a power outage.

Additionally, locations were strategically identified to ensure that the technical and commercial feasibility of microgrids explored interconnecting with different utility companies, as well as differing potential natural disasters that the power grid had to withstand. Each team must coordinate between multiple stakeholders, utilities, and third party financiers, to ensure the community can support its own power loads, without local utility power, for at least 14 days. Stage 2 of the competition will then award approximately 10 of the most promising technical and economical solutions, to develop fully engineered documents. Further stages will then award funding levels for the actual construction phase.

This experiment poses a unique challenge economically, socially, and technically. On an economic level, the different parties involved must come to legal agreements in regards to the ownership and maintenance models of the power generation asset. Furthermore, the project must have an economic model to generate revenue by participation in the New York Independent System Operator market. Socially, decisions must be made regarding which assets are critical to serving a local population during an emergency, and sharing power generation assets altruistically. Technically, designers are left to design both power systems and controllers for which there is no precedent on this scale. One project example involves a city hall, rail station, water and wastewater plant, housing complex, and a number of outlying municipal structures. Many of these facilities are several blocks apart in a congested urban environment, while still others are located across railroad tracks.

Some facilities contain their own existing diesel emergency generators, while a few are without a backup power source. A combination of overhead poles, direct boring, transformers, and other underground infrastructure is thus required to be connected together to power each facility both in a normal and/or emergency power scenario. Any such system must also be approved by the local utility, which is dealing with a unique islanding configuration not covered under the current purveyance of IEEE 1547. This requires switchgear type systems at each facility able to transfer within 10 cycles.

To enable such a system, the greatest technical difficulty is presently the development of both a microgrid standard, and a microgrid controller standard. Such a standard is currently in development, with several organizations assisting in its creation and testing; however, controllers on the market are being developed by specific vendors. As a result, the standard must incorporate technology from various vendors, and utilize compatible communication system protocols. The microgrid controller must communicate in real-time with the economic market, island from the power grid in an IEEE 1547 compliant fashion, integrate with a building's BMS system to shed non-priority loads, and enable control of various distributed generation assets. The standard must also address concerns relating to ensuring microgrids properly interface with industry codes. As an example, hospital emergency generation must be online with 10 seconds, a timeframe that most assets outside of diesel generators are unable to match.

Perhaps the second most daunting task in designing a system is the proper sizing of generation assets so they can meet technical requirements and also produce economic and resilience benefits. Generator sizing based upon financial models tends to ignore issues such as frequency and electrical system stability which rotating equipment provides. Oftentimes, distributed generation is unable to meet the 10 second starting requirements, and not accepted by NFPA 101 regarding emergency power system requirements. Financially focused models may also select generators without regard to the impact of large block loads such as motor starting characteristics and voltage response, which is a critical part of any generator sizing calculation.

The NY Prize competition is highlighting both the benefits and challenges of microgrids and presenting those in the emerging industry with the problem of how to optimize economic and technical outcomes. And with public enthusiasm for these projects outpacing of the development of industry standards, design industry experts must work together quickly to ensure the standard incorporates elements of practical engineering design, communication standard protocols, and guidelines for appropriate economic and technical optimization.




Philip Gonski, P.E, is a Project Manager at Burns Engineering, specializing in power distribution for distributed generation. Phil has designed and managed power plants around the world ranging from 3200MW combined cycle facilities, to small distributed power plants. In addition to his work experience, Phil is an active volunteer within the IEEE and is presently the Chairman of the IEEE Philadelphia Section. Phil has a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign and a ME in Energy and Power Engineering from University of Illinois-Chicago.

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