Independence Through Microgrids: When The Power Goes Out, Some Are Just Going Off The Grid


The NYC skyline remains dark after Superstorm Sandy knocked out power.

The NYC skyline remains dark after Superstorm Sandy knocked out power.

The NYC skyline remains dark after Superstorm Sandy knocked out power.

Besides the Seaside Heights roller coaster laying mangled in the ocean, and the New York skyline half blacked out, one of the most iconic images from Superstorm Sandy’s collision with the East coast were the jerry-rigged charging stations created by the fortunate few who had power, for the millions who didn’t.

In Hoboken, NJ where the National Guard had to be called in to rescue people trapped in their apartments by streets turned into rivers, one block kept the power on throughout it all, and residents helpfully dangled extension cords out their windows for those who were desperate to charge phones.

In all, 8.5 million people lost power during Sandy and many had to make do in the dark and cold for weeks before the lights came back on.

While the one bright block in Hoboken was a lucky fluke, the FDA’s research center and Co-Op City, a 45,000-resident cooperative in the Bronx, weren’t lucky — they were prepared. When the lights went out, both facilities simply disconnected from the grid and drew power from their own microgrids. They were able to be independent.

Hurricane Sandy isn’t the only time that weird weather has crippled the metro area’s grid, either. The heat wave of 2006 caused 36 major power outages and plunged much of Queens, New York into darkness for over a week.

According to Navigant Research, a clean-tech data and consulting company, microgrids once almost exclusively consigned to military applications are poised to become a $40 billion-a-year business worldwide by the end of the decade. By 2020, Navigant expects that about 6 gigawatts, or enough electricity to power 4.8 million homes, will pulse through microgrids.

In August, Energy Secretary Ernst Moniz announced that his department was investing $1 million in a study grant to use technology developed at Sandia National Laboratories to create a microgrid to power New Jersey’s public transit system in the event of widespread power outage. This system of trains, which has only recently become fully operational again after being severely damaged during Sandy, serves not only Garden State commuters, but would also be critical for New Yorkers, should a rapid evacuation of the city be necessary.

In addition to helping people, businesses, and key infrastructure to better weather the predicted extremes of climate change, microgrids are also making their mark in the developing world, where their spread in remote areas is outpacing that of conventional utilities. Worldwide, nearly 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity.

In the U.S., microgrid technology is also gaining popularity for commercial operations. Over the next two years, commercial-scale systems like the one used by the FDA’s research system are expected to grow by an order of magnitude, from 30 to 300. According to data from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, cited in a recent Bloomberg article, businesses may have as much as anyone to gain by getting off the big grid. The annual electric bill for U.S. businesses is already nearly $200 billion, but power outages and power quality issues cost another $80 billion to $150 billion.