Is bigger better? Maybe not when it comes to powering a city
Bigger isn’t always better, at least not when you’re talking about electricity.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority is issuing a report Wednesday that shows how so-called microgrids — self-contained sections of the electricity grid that connect nearby buildings to a local power plant — can benefit the city.
These microgrids can provide a backup in the event of a major outage due to storms or flooding. But the report makes the case that there are cost savings and environmental benefits as well.
For one of these microgrids to be built, it would require a complex set of events that would take place over several years. First, an energy company like Ameresco or Veolia would need to create a small district-oriented power plant in conjunction with electricity services from Eversource Energy. Equally important: a number of building owners would need to be willing to collectively sign up to use the grid.
“All of these projects require a bunch of building owners working together, or being encouraged by zoning [rules] to join the same collective infrastructure system,” said Travis Sheehan, an energy fellow at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Boston already has one microgrid that can serve as a model, in the Longwood Medical Area. The Medical Area Total Energy Plant, also known as MATEP, serves hospitals and research facilities throughout a 213-acre area in Boston, distributing steam, chilled water and electricity. It can operate for up to 10 days during natural gas service interruptions.
Under one scenario in the new report, prioritizing cheaper costs, the potential utility savings and the value of environmental benefits could be worth as much as $1.7 billion over 25 years.
In another — one that’s focused more on limiting air pollution — the potential benefits could total $600 million over the same time frame. Both scenarios would rely on 10 microgrids in the city and take into consideration the upfront expenses needed to build the new plants and the ongoing maintenance costs.
The scenarios assume that the microgrids would be fully operational by 2022.
City officials hope to use the report as a springboard to launch neighborhood discussions about the most promising sites for microgrids within the city, such as the Andrew Square area of South Boston. Brian Golden, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said his agency plans to act as a convener to bring together important local players to discuss the issue.
The quasi-public Massachusetts Clean Energy Center provided the report’s primary funding, through a $75,000 grant. City officials developed the report in conjunction with researchers from MIT’s Sustainable Design Lab and its Lincoln Laboratory.
Boston’s study of microgrids comes as a similar analysis for Boston is under way at the Charles River Watershed Association. The nonprofit is focused more on creating a “microgrid” of sorts for wastewater treatment, but also hopes to pitch these facilities as business opportunities by showing how they could be used to generate electricity and heat for nearby buildings.