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Gimme Shelter: This Microgrid Could Fight Massive Winter Storms

Boston and other parts of the Northeast took it on the chin from Winter Storm Juno on Tuesday. The blizzard was expected to dump up to two feet of snow along the Atlantic coast, stranding people, toppling trees and knocking out power for thousands of residents, including the entire island of Nantucket.But ever since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area two years ago, engineers and local power authorities have been looking for tools to soften the weather’s blows.

Last December, for example, National Grid, Clarkson University, GE Energy Consulting, and Nova Energy Specialists started working on a functional design of a resilient electrical micro-grid for the Village of Potsdam located in New York State, near the Canadian border. If built – the funding right now only covers the feasibility study – it would supply key local business and emergency facilities with power during extreme weather, geomagnetic storms and crippling events similar to the 2003 northeast blackout.  “This could be a blueprint for other towns and cities in New York and the U.S.,” says Beth LaRose, general manager of GE’s Energy Consulting business.

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Potsdam, N.Y., endures ice and heavy snowfall every winter. Image credit: Mwanner

The project is funded by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and National Grid and managed by Tom Ortmeyer from Clarkson University. It will rely on an underground power distribution network sheltered from the elements.

On most days, the microgrid could stay connected to the primary local power grid to help enhance the reliability of the system. It would kick in when bad weather strikes and allow Potsdam to disconnect from the grid during emergency, if necessary.

On its own, the microgrid would operate as an independent electrical island distributing power generated by a number of diverse potential sources, which could range from natural gas to fuel oil or hydroelectric power and solar energy. “This combination of power source diversity and secure distribution is the key,” LaRose says. “This is an important component of what a modern grid could look like.”

Top image illustration: Snowplow working on the Saltfjell in Norway. Image credit: Kabelleger/David Gubler

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