When Superstorm Sandy barreled into New Jersey in 2012 and knocked out power to more than 2 million residents, Montclair State University (MSU) set its sights on getting a campus microgrid. That way, the next time a big storm struck and took the main electric grid down with it, the state’s second-largest university could keep generating its own power.
When Sandy’s fierce winds toppled trees and power lines, it took a week to fully restore power to MSU and resume classes. But it wasn’t another monster storm that further underscored the institution’s need for a microgrid—a self-contained energy grid that operates in sync with the main grid or on its own.
It was a car plus a turkey vulture.
In May 2016, the turbine at the university’s power plant was offline for annual maintenance when a car struck a power pole, taking down one of two local utility 26 kV feeders into the campus. Not long afterward, the remaining feeder went down as well.
“A large turkey vulture had sat on a power line, opened its wings and bridged two lines, causing line fuses to blow, leaving the campus with no electrical power,” said MSU Vice President of University Facilities Shawn Connolly. “With the exception of emergency generation for critical loads, we lost the entire campus for a full afternoon.”
With no electricity to run lights or computers, the university was forced to postpone final exams and extend the academic semester by a full day, he explained.
“For us to lose power is a big deal anytime,” he said. “But it was particularly disruptive during finals. And because we had to make up a day, it was also costly.”
MSU administrators knew that a good microgrid could keep power flowing whenever the main grid went down and therefore save the university money. But they also knew that getting the right technology was about more than the microgrid itself. It was about adding yet another smart brain to the campus.
The intelligence behind any microgrid is its controller—the software and control components that govern it to perform and coordinate tasks, whether seamlessly “islanding” during utility outages or automatically responding to changing power load conditions. It’s that “brain” that Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) was selected to custom-make for MSU’s microgrid.
Located just 12 miles from New York City, MSU is a public research university that serves more than 21,000 students, almost twice the number from two decades ago. At MSU’s main entrance is a bronze 12-foot-tall sculpture of a red hawk, the school mascot. Tree-lined streets and walkways wind through the 253-acre campus, noted for its Spanish Mission Revival-style buildings with white stucco walls and overhanging terra cotta eaves.
Two such buildings sitting side by side along Yogi Berra Drive reveal no hint of the technological prowess going on inside. The larger of the two structures contains the university’s combined heating, cooling, and power (CHCP) plant that went online in 2013. Connected by a short walkway is the second, smaller building that houses MSU’s microgrid technology, in operation since early 2018.
Both facilities were funded through public-private partnerships between MSU and the New Jersey-based energy development company DCO Energy. This made it possible to implement the CHCP plant, and later the microgrid, said Connolly.
“It’s an excellent funding tool for key energy projects, particularly as higher-education institutions face increasingly tight budgets,” he said.
The university’s 5.4 MW CHCP plant provides energy-efficient delivery of steam for heat and chilled water for air conditioning while also providing natural gas-fired generation of electricity. It delivers 85 percent of the university’s electricity needs, while the regional utility supplies the rest.
This kind of arrangement isn’t unusual among larger campuses, and it works well—until something goes wrong beyond the utility’s control. Disruptions caused by superstorms, heavy snow, car accidents, and even an errant animal occasionally cut power to the central grid, affecting the campus’s power supply.
“With 6,000 students living on campus, a large network of buildings, and doctoral-level research programs that call for temperature-sensitive specimens and equipment, we have an around-the-clock need for electricity,” said Connolly.
That’s where its natural gas-fueled microgrid comes into play. This addition runs in tandem with the CHCP plant to provide additional power generation and smart grid technology.
“We developed a true microgrid, in every sense of the word,” said Kyle Gandy, electrical engineering manager at DCO Energy.
At the core of this true microgrid is SEL’s controller. Before it was installed, SEL engineers conducted rigorous hardware-in-the-loop testing to ensure it successfully interfaced with the microgrid model under a variety of simulated scenarios.
It passed with flying colors.
Not only can the controller respond to off-campus power disturbances in milliseconds, but it also determines how much, when, and where the microgrid should supply power or hold it back, said Gandy.
“Resiliency has been a big draw for microgrids, which is just what this one was designed to optimize,” he explained. “If an outage occurs on the main grid, MSU’s microgrid will seamlessly transition to island mode and provide automatic load restoration. It won’t trip. It won’t go dark. No one will even know there was a disturbance.”
The microgrid’s sophisticated control system governs those smooth transitions. Yet its benefits aren’t just operational—they’re financial as well, he said.
“Montclair’s microgrid produces significant savings by lowering energy costs and by managing onsite energy usage to avoid peak energy prices while supporting grid stability,” Gandy said.
For example, in a give-and-take relationship with the regional utility, the microgrid controller can automatically regulate power purchased from the utility’s grid when campus demand is high. Yet it can also take stress off the grid by selling power to the utility during demand spikes brought on by heat waves in the region.
All of which means, not only does the university’s software-driven microgrid bolster resiliency, increase energy efficiency, and thereby reduce emissions, but it also saves money and makes money, said Connolly of MSU.
“We’re saving the university upwards of $4 million a year,” he said. “That’s about 20 percent of our utility bill. Our utility bills would be roughly 20 percent higher had we not taken this path.”
Connolly hopes the benefits reaped from MSU’s microgrid project will serve as a roadmap for other universities.
“They’re natural candidates for microgrids,” he said. “Whether to ensure safety of students or protect costly research labs, campuses need electricity 24/7.”
Also, because many universities have cogenerating plants onsite, adding a microgrid typically makes them run more efficiently and saves money in the process. What’s more, microgrids can provide a revenue stream by selling power to the regional utility as conditions dictate.
Yet it requires a savvy controller to create this kind of energy ecosystem. Without one, a microgrid would be an inert mix of energy technologies, said Bharat Tummala, Engineering Services manager of SEL’s King of Prussia branch in Pennsylvania, who oversaw the controller project at MSU.
Instead of off-the-shelf products built by a single company, most microgrids are developed by a matrix of vendors whose equipment ranges from generators, inverters, switches, and wiring, he explained.
“A good controller is able to interface with these technologies and get them to perform smoothly together,” he said.
SEL is well-suited to accomplish this cohesion, having built custom controllers to meet customers’ needs before the term microgrid became an industry buzzword.
“SEL understood the value of microgrids and their controllers long before Hurricane Sandy,” said Tummala, adding that the company has developed control systems for other universities, communities, military sites, and industrial facilities.
Moreover, a major component of an SEL control system is the digital protective relay—the technology that Dr. Edmund O. Schweitzer, III, SEL’s founder, is famous for inventing in 1982.
Years of experience and problem-solving, combined with the use of SEL products manufactured in-house, “enables us to provide a tailor-made product that’s both smart and powerful to achieve our customers’ goals,” Tummala said.
The proof is on display inside a Spanish Mission-style building at MSU.
Should another natural disaster or turkey vulture come along and trigger a fault on the regional power grid, the outcome is likely to be far different, assured Tummala.
“Our decoupling relay will immediately sense the disruption and open the breakers that island the campus,” he explained. “Then, very quickly, the controller will analyze the system condition and issue commands to make the system stable.”
All this would happen in milliseconds.
“The lights won’t even flicker,” he said.
Which means, unlike during the May 2016 outage, students would finish their final exams, head back to their living spaces, and call an end to another semester at MSU.