Will storms provide impetus for rethinking the power grid?

Joel Gordes, an energy consultant and former state legislator, remembers what happened on September 26 when he started talking about cyber attacks and ice storms during his presentation to the legislative committee investigating the utility response to tropical storm Irene.

At one point, he recalled, Sen. John Fonfara, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee looked at him: “This is a hearing on hurricane Irene. Are you in the right room?” he asked.

“If all we’re going to look at is just the trees, we’re missing the whole point of what we ought to do,” said Gordes, who has been on the soapbox of overall grid security for years.

“As the saying goes, the military always prepares for the last war. In many cases, what I see now is the same thing,” he said. “We have to look beyond this to the ice storm or the cyber attack. That would make this look like a tap dance.”

Looking for new ways to address the shortcomings of the state’s electric grid and repair system over the long term rather than just patching up the old one and repeating the mantra of tree trimming is starting to gain traction among officials and energy experts facing the second catastrophic breakdown of both in as many months. That it can also be done in a way that relies more on renewable or clean energy and will create jobs and revenue in the process is making it even more compelling.

“It’s very much on our minds,” said Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty, himself without power for days after the weekend snowstorm. “We have a clear signal; we need to do things differently in Connecticut going forward. We have to look at where have the breakdowns been; what are the options going forward; what are the cost benefits going forward.”

Esty said his new deputy commissioner in charge of energy, Jonathan Schrag, had already been looking into the potential for more of what’s known as distributed or on-site generation–power that Is provided from a source at the location of usually a commercial, industrial or public facility. It can work in conjunction with the grid or independently of it in cases such as occurred during Irene and last weekend’s nor’easter.

Distributed generation is commonly thought of as solar panels on a building’s roof or wind turbines nearby, but in Connecticut, fuel cells often top the list since the state is home to some of the world’s largest fuel cell companies–UTC Power and Fuel Cell Energy prime among them. And for that reason, the energy and business communities here have long considered fuel cells, which do not have the kinds of intermittency problems solar and wind power have, a perfect marriage of clean energy and economic adrenalin.

Esty said his department had already asked the University of Connecticut to assist with an economic analysis of building out a fuel cell structure around the state to provide more distributed generation, with an eye towards a legislative package this spring that will help push it along. While he recognizes that such projects remain more expensive than standard forms of electricity, he believes that ramping up their use will help bring down the cost.

That cost issue, said Fonfara, D-Hartford, who has been an advocate for distributed generation for many years, tends to be the hurdle.

“When the focus of so many in this state, and political leaders in particular, are trained on the price of electricity, it ends up being a non-starter,” he said. “We have these great conversations but we don’t move.

“It’s very frustrating.”

Fonfara said he would be willing to introduce legislation to help foster distributed generation projects and so-called microgrids–small versions of the centralized grid system we have now. And he said rather than rely on the ratepayer fees that have typically funded such projects, he would favor using more taxpayer money, especially in the form of bonds.

Gordes has long espoused a holistic approach to power systems, making sure they are strategically constructed. He points to the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995. There was plenty of gasoline he said, but no way to pump it. Now gas stations have solar power to back up their pumps. He also cites Denmark, which transitioned about half its electrical system to small combined heat and power facilities–but it’s taken 30 years.

“Look, this isn’t going to happen over night,” he said.

And it will require more than changes in technology, said Paul Michaud, an attorney with Murtha Cullina who helped found the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Business Association.

“It will not happen without a sea-change in our electric regulations, which date back to the 1970s,” said Michaud, who favors a microgrid approach.

He points to the example of the new sustainable apartment building in New Haven at 360 State Street. It installed a fuel cell with the intent that the building would charge tenants for power use. But state regulations prohibit that–a practice known as submetering–and instead the building essentially sells its power back to the grid and tenants repurchase it.

“Our hope is with Commissioner Esty and the formation of DEEP, perhaps some of these regulatory barriers will be examined,” he said.

But an often-noted concern is that once power is restored from this storm and people reestablish their normal lives, the potential of not letting a crisis go to waste, as the saying goes, will be lost.

“Everyone’s being reactive at the moment,” said Bryan Garcia, the president of the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which has provided large amounts of funding for distributed generation over the years under its previous incarnation–the Clean Energy Fund.

“Using an energy security lens, how do we develop a more enduring system and a more resilient system going forward by learning from what we’re going through?” he asked. “It speaks to the need to look at distributed generation in a new way.”

He thinks having so many people affected by one or both storms–especially businesses that might have lost revenue–might provide a kick-start for a new approach to energy, even with its higher cost.

“One of the things we should look at is having an economic loss study for both Irene and this storm,” he said. “And start asking ourselves, if that’s the loss, proactively what’s the level of investment needed to prevent that loss in the future?”

If there was any need for proof that on-site generation is at least a viable backup for grid power, one need only look at a the emergency shelters in operation at South Windsor and Middletown High Schools. Both schools have fuel cells that typically handle about half their loads. Those cells are now handling the power, heat, hot water and providing food and electronics recharging for the shelters.

“I like the idea of reinforcing the paradigm of fuel cells at mission critical facilities – shelters, schools, critical telecommunications, critical transportation,” said Joel Rinebold, director of energy for the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, which advocates fuel cells and their development in Connecticut as an important economic driver. “We have an opportunity to rethink the infrastructure and how generation is deployed on that for the end user.”