What exactly should a civilian microgrid look like?

NJ Transitgrid, a newly announced $1 million DOE study, aims to answer this question in the context of New Jersey’s Northeast corridor transit system, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie announced in Secaucus on Monday. The project will involve new generation assets and distribution infrastructure for the third-largest public transportation system in the nation, which serves more than 900,000 customers each day -- the same system that required significantly more time for restoration than New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

New Jersey’s planned microgrid is among the early projects putting the Department’s new grid resiliency focus into practice. 

The Garden State will be one of the first states to implement a microgrid in a large-scale civilian application. However, the network’s structure will be adapted from a microgrid blueprint developed by Sandia National Laboratories, the institution that previously designed 25 microgrids for military installations across the country. Sandia’s Energy Surety Microgrid (ESM) methodology is a quantitative risk assessment tool, based on cost and performance data from military bases. ESM focuses on integrating distributed energy sources, including PV systems, small wind turbines, storage and backup generators, and incorporates design approaches for both islanded and grid-tied microgrids.

The microgrid project, based on a memorandum of understanding between the DOE, NJ Transit and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, supplements NJ Transit’s recovery plan which addresses the $400 million in damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. To mitigate future weather-related damages, the plan also involves elevating critical power stations, installing new catenary power poles and fortifying generation facilities.

With NJ Transit experiencing significantly longer service interruptions than New York City’s MTA, its move to endorse disaster resilience comes as no surprise. The organization faced widespread criticism for inadequate storm preparation, including rail cars and locomotives left in low-lying areas, especially at the flood-prone Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny. The damage affected more than 300 railcars and locomotives, compared to roughly ten damaged MTA railcars. Clearly, not even an advanced microgrid will relocate locomotives, but automation can play a key role in avoiding human failure in disaster response, especially with regards to decision-making processes.

NJ Transitgrid will include facilities at the Jersey City, Kearny, Secaucus, Hoboken, Harrison and Newark stations. The project plans to make use of existing railroad rights of way for power transmission between the stations. During the first phase, Sandia’s ESM methodology will help assess the critical power needs of the transit system.

Further elaborating on the project during his recent policy address at Columbia University, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz highlighted the importance of federal and state collaboration, particularly in geographies susceptible to extreme weather events. The Secretary said that in terms of disaster resilience, the Northeast corridor region now had “a leadership opportunity, unfortunately one that partly has its genesis in the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy.” He underscored the importance of the Northeast corridor’s transit system not only for New Jersey, but as an evacuation corridor for Manhattan passengers. Moniz said the microgrid’s generation capacity will “clearly exceed” 50 megawatts. No further details on the composition of the planned generation were disclosed, but solar PV is a likely choice since New Jersey is one of the largest solar markets in the U.S.