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Research underway to plan smart emergency grid in Potsdam

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By ALAN RIZZO

POTSDAM — Research is underway on a new smart energy grid for the village, which intends to keep emergency services online in the event of a severe-weather power outage. Clarkson University, partnering with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, National Grid and others, is designing a grid that will provide renewable and conventional electricity to many entities in the village.

The project is part of NYSERDA’s Electric Power Transmission and Distribution Smart Grid Program, and is one of seven such projects around the state that have received $3.3 million in state funds. Funding of $381,000 has been secured for Potsdam’s new grid.

The proposed grid promises to provide a “localized source of power that would be more energy-efficient and resilient,” one that will lower delivery costs, making energy cheaper for customers, according to a press release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office.

Smart grids are local power grids that can respond to outages in seconds using automated sensing, allowing operators to locate and fix problems without sending out crews. When the state grid goes down due to a weather disaster, smart grids can operate on their own.

National Grid, NYSERDA and the Schenectady organizations GE Energy Consulting and NOVA Energy will share costs and expertise for the project. Clarkson also will share costs, according to William D. Jemison, vice provost for research, who said cost sharing is a requirement in such proposals.

“All four partners will be involved in the planning and design,” said Thomas H. Ortmeyer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clarkson and one of three members of the university’s research team for the project. “Without them on board, you couldn’t even think about this.”

The team also includes Lei Wu and Jie Li, both assistant professors in electrical and computer engineering.

“We really do have a top-notch team,” Mr. Ortmeyer said. “Everybody involved does have experience in these areas.”

The goal of the project is to gather enough data to create designs for the grid and get an idea of costs so that requests for proposals can be sent out to contractors, Mr. Ortmeyer said.

“I think the real trend in the industry right now is to try to incorporate the advanced automation and the advanced communication to allow the grid to operate more reliably by self-healing,” Mr. Jemison said.

The term “micro grid,” — another name for a smart grid — has become popular among energy professionals, Mr. Jemison said.

A micro grid can accept all types of power contributions, including renewables.

Since it is unknown at this point if the community’s mix of gas, solar and water-generated power will be enough, the team believes gas-fired energy must be included, with oil-fired energy as a possible backup.

Clarkson wants to provide power to the new grid in the form of photovoltaics, which means converting solar radiation into power using semiconductors.

The proposed grid would run new underground power lines in two branches. One branch will connect SUNY Potsdam’s heat and power plant, Clarkson’s planned photovoltaic arrays and the village’s hydro plant. The other will connect Canton-Potsdam Hospital, the village police station and the town’s sewage and water treatment plants. The grid also will connect to National Grid’s local service center.

“These will be new lines that upgrade the existing system,” Mr. Ortmeyer said.

The ability to keep businesses, services and communications afloat is “just where we need to be in a 21st-century power grid,” Mr. Jemison said.

The project is in the study phase.

Plans for new grids come in response to outages from winter storms and flooding, which have plagued regions across the state in recent years. Mr. Jemison, Mr. Wu and Mr. Ortmeyer agreed that the economic cost of a town-wide outage is tremendous.

Last year, Clarkson housed repair crews for three weeks as they fixed lines downed by December’s ice storm.

“The ultimate goal when those bad things happen is to minimize the impact to the smallest number of people possible and keep the grid running,” Mr. Jemison said.

He said it was a good thing that students were not in town; if a similar storm were to happen during the academic year, thousands of students would be without heat, food and medical services.

With a micro grid in place, that would not be a concern.

While the micro grid will not be able to support the electricity needs of the entire village, it will “enable the recovery efforts to happen in a more organized fashion,” Mr. Ortmeyer said.

He said ideally up to two weeks of power would be available for essential services during emergencies and improve “quality of service” during normal operation.

There are still several details to work out, including how much energy will be needed for emergencies, what services should be powered and what amount of power the community can provide.

“The community aspect is going to require us to think through a more complex set of issues if we’re all going to benefit,” Mr. Jemison said.

To answer these and other questions, the design team will rely on input from community partners — including the village, the hospital and SUNY Potsdam — so that all needs will be fairly met. “The support of the community partners, and their willingness to supply information to the team is critical,” said Mr. Jemison, who described the cooperation thus far as fantastic.

James T. Ditullio, SUNY Potsdam’s assistant vice president for facilities and planning, said for the sake of the community the college will participate, though the college’s plant — which can generate 2.8 megawatts — makes SUNY Potsdam energy independent in emergencies.

“If we can help out in any way to assist the emergency or hospital services, we’re happy to do that, and it’s our responsibility to do that as a member of the Potsdam community,” he said.

The team is also looking at how to take advantage of the micro grid’s automation and allow consumers to turn appliances on and off based on rate information.

“We may be able to better control the consumption behavior of the consumer,” Mr. Wu said.

It is unknown who else will be involved in grid plans. According to the Clarkson team, “key businesses” may participate, but none has yet been identified.

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