BGE plans to test 'microgrids' at retail centers

Edmondson Village and Kings Contrivance Village Center are proposed as test sites for BGE microgrids.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. plans to test microgrids — self-contained, small-scale electric grids with their own power sources — at shopping centers in Baltimore and Howard County.

The utility wants to build, own and operate emergency grids that could power businesses and nearby public facilities at Edmondson Village in the city and King's Contrivance Village Center in Columbia during regional power outages. BGE said it selected the centers for a 12-month pilot program based on their accessibility and mix of services, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, clinics, gas stations and public buildings that could serve as shelters.

"Our proposed microgrids would be designed to provide power, energy, to critical services in a designated area that the community would need and rely on during an extended outage" caused by severe storms or other events, said John Murach, manager of energy-efficient programs for BGE. "We're trying to keep the power on to this group of services to support the broader community."

BGE filed an application with the Maryland Public Service commission Friday seeking to build the emergency grids at a cost of $15 million to $17 million and operate them during a 12-month test period.

The utility is asking the PSC to approve charging residential electric customers about 4 cents per month in the first year to pay for the program. The cost would increase in the second year to an estimated 13 cents per month for an average residential electric customer.

Paula Carmody, head of the consumer advocate Office of People's Counsel, said BGE's request that the PSC approve the application at a Jan. 27 administrative meeting leaves little time for review by her office, coming on the heels of several other BGE filings.

"Clearly this does not provide sufficient time for an agency like mine that represents residential customers to fully examine what it is that they're proposing," Carmody said. "They're asking ratepayers to pay for the cost of these microgrids. It does not go to the issue of whether public microgrids can be beneficial. ... Our job is to make sure that this is reasonable and makes sense as a project and also that it makes sense that customers are paying for it."

Though commercial customers such as businesses, educational institutions or medical campuses may operate their own microgrids, either for backup power or to reduce grid dependence, BGE's proposal is the first in the state to be proposed by a utility for its community-wide benefits, Murach said.

The microgrid industry in North America is small but rapidly growing, according to a November study by Navigant Consulting Inc. The research showed growth is being driven in part by an increase in frequency and duration of outages due to the aging of the grid infrastructure.

"While campus/institutional microgrids have historically been the leader in North American grid-tied applications, interest is now shifting to utility and community resiliency projects," Navigant's report said.

BGE's plans stemmed from the recommendations of a task force appointed by former Gov. Martin O'Malley and led by the Maryland Energy Administration in the wake of extended outages caused by Hurricane Sandy. The task force evaluated microgrids for reliability and found them in the public interest, urging electric utilities to apply to the PSC to develop them.

It also concluded that electric distributors should incorporate "public purpose microgrids" into grid upgrade planning, given the increasing frequency of Atlantic storms and their increasing costs. The number of named Atlantic storms jumped 67 percent since 1995, costing between $20 billion and $50 billion, the report found.

BGE said it wanted to test both urban and suburban locations that included a mix of community services and were near either public transportation or major roads.

Both locations are on or near major highways or along major bus routes. Edmondson Village, in the 4600 block of Edmondson Avenue, includes a grocery store and pharmacy, medical offices, local and chain restaurants, Edmondson High School and the Edmondson Avenue Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Columbia site in the 8600 block of Guilford Road includes a grocery store and pharmacy, several banks, a gas station, personal service businesses, Hammond High School and a village meeting house.

In its PSC application, BGE argues that "public purpose microgrids" have value for "BGE customers and others who may be in the service area supported by a microgrid during times of extended outages. The services supported by the proposed microgrids will serve a large number of residents and customers in and around the microgrid locations, well beyond those included in the islanded circuits."

Natural gas-powered generators at the test sites could produce the three megawatts each location requires. The grids would take 12 to 18 months to build.

The utility expects to use the results of the 12-month pilot program to explore future microgrid development throughout Central Maryland. In the long term, Murach said BGE could build one or more microgrid in each county.

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