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By: Tom Johnson |

Distributed-generation technologies like CHP and microgrids could help keep the lights on at critical facilities despite extreme weather

In making the nation’s electric grid more resilient, the federal government will focus on innovative approaches, including smart-grid technologies and distributed generation facilities, according to Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a talk at the New York University School of Law, Donovan said the Obama administration is working closely with New Jersey on a range of new financing and market-based approaches to improve the resiliency of the power grid. More than 7 million people in New Jersey were left without power following Hurricane Sandy last October.

Technologies pressed into service will likely include combined heat and power (CHP) plants, Donovan said, which proved successful in keeping the electricity flowing at places like Princeton University and the College of New Jersey during the superstorm. The administration is also talking with Hoboken officials about developing a microgrid plan for the Hudson County city, he said.

Both microgrids and CHP, which produces power locally and more efficiently than conventional generating units, are forms of distributed generation, modern small-scale versions of the century-old centralized electricity grid. The idea is that even when the grid goes down, they continue to deliver electricity.

In the wake of Sandy, both approaches, but especially CHP plants, have been embraced by the Christie administration as a way to harden the power grid and make it less vulnerable to power outages, especially at critical facilities like hospitals and drinking water and wastewater treatment plants. All suffered power outages during Sandy, in some cases generators designed to produce backup power ran out of fuel.

The Christie administration already has earmarked up to $100 million in clean-energy funds to help promote the development of CHP plants in New Jersey. In addition, it is working on another plan to promote such facilities by requiring utilities to purchase a certain amount of their electricity from these systems.

Donovan told the conference in a luncheon keynote address that the effects of climate change are being felt across the country. “As Sandy showed us, we have a lot more work to do,’’ he said. “We know we can’t rebuild to what was there before.’’

Marc Ferzan, executive director of the New Jersey Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, was at the event and praised Donovan after his speech for helping the state in its efforts to recover from the storm.

“This has really been for us, a model of good government,’’ said Ferzan, who is sometimes referred to as New Jersey’s “storm czar.’’ Among other things, the state and federal governments are looking at how to stretch federal money so that the funds can be multiplied using new forms of financing, such as revolving loan funds, Ferzan said.

The state is also looking at how New Jersey’s numerous solar panels can continue to provide electricity to homeowners, even if the power grid goes dark. Unless the systems have special converters, the arrays shut down when the power grid fails.

The debate on how to make the power grid more resilient is already playing out in a proceeding before the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities — a $2.6 billion case proposed by the state’s largest utility to make improvements to its electric and gas system over a five-year period.

A big part of the project by Public Service Electric & Gas includes relocating, elevating, or building floodwalls around dozens of switching stations and substations, all of which flooded during Sandy, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers without power.

The case is not expected to be decided until sometime next year.

The PSE&G proposal also includes expenditures for smart-grid technologies that will enable utilities to pinpoint problems more quickly when outages occur, but in the past both the BPU and the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel questioned whether costs outweigh the benefits.