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Benefits of on-campus microgrids
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Benefits of on-campus microgrids

If the grid fails, how will that impact your campus operations and affect your students? Securing your campus energy with a microgrid can be the solution – here are 4 steps colleges and universities can take to achieve energy resilience.

An uninterrupted energy supply is essential for colleges and universities to consider as they build their sustainability plans and implement energy and infrastructure upgrades in line with their strategy. In the event of a power outage, students and faculty rely on their institution to keep the lights on and emergency services operational. Therefore, colleges and universities must protect their institution’s critical energy requirements during an outage to ensure the safety, well-being, and satisfaction of their students and staff.

The need for energy resilience has become more urgent as the frequency and severity of natural disasters increase each year. According to our research, 50% of organizations say disruption is a top risk, and electric outages have cost the U.S. economy $150 billion annually and impacted approximately 14.2 million people.

Reliable and resilient energy is vital to colleges and universities for many reasons, including:

  • Higher education institutions spend over $80 billion in research and development each year and are heavily dependent on electricity – an outage could destroy years of research. 
  • Safe and comfortable room and board is a responsibility of every college and university – power outages present physical safety risks to the students.
  • Power outages can be costly – institutions may need to pay for alternative housing, or, if campus operations are completely shut down, institutions face decreased revenues from dining options and housing fees.

Colleges and universities need a forward-thinking resilience plan

Every college and university should have a resilience plan that they implement when the grid goes down. The traditional approach to back-up power is not a long-term, sustainable, or environmentally-friendly solution. Nor does it align with net zero targets. Diesel back-up engines, in particular, emit toxic emissions and are subject to air district requirements regarding air pollution. In addition, they are often unreliable and come with the financial burden of substantial maintenance.

Today’s forward-thinking colleges and universities require new ways of thinking, with the overall goal of securing energy resilience while reducing energy costs and supporting sustainability goals. There needs to be renewed focus on state-of-the-art, clean energy technologies, data-driven solutions, and adaptive processes for reinforcing existing infrastructure and meeting critical needs. And new thinking is required regarding budget planning and project finance opportunities.

A four-step approach to campus resilience

1. Form a strong task force

An effective resilience plan depends upon collective action, collaboration, and buy-in of key stakeholders. One of the first steps in creating an effective resilience plan is identifying the appropriate individuals who should form the resilience task force. They should have a thorough understanding of the campus, challenges, and opportunities and may include such roles as the facilities manager, campus safety officer, or utility rep. It may help to engage existing higher education institutions that have experience working on resilience efforts or crisis management.

2. Understand your energy usage profile

Understanding campus-wide energy use and operational performance is essential to determine what systems and facilities will need to remain on 24/7 for long-term power outages – otherwise known as a critical load. Determining a critical load is necessary to ensure that non-negotiable systems are prioritized, energy is not wasted powering systems that don’t need to run continuously, and specific opportunities for reducing energy consumption can be identified.

The critical load of a facility is divided into 3 tiers, and your task force should identify systems that fall within each tier:

  • Tier 1 = Critical load, which must be available 100% of the time (for example, this could be 10% of your facility’s overall load)
  • Tier 2 = Priority load, which must be available 80% of the time (this could be 15% of your load)
  • Tier 3 = Discretionary load, which can be available 30% of the time (this could make up the remaining 75% of your load)

Many colleges and universities don’t have a clear understanding of how much energy they use daily or the profile of that usage. The amount of energy a back-up system needs to generate – to power a facility’s load per the tiered requirements outlined above – is driven by the profile of your daily energy usage. This information must be collected and analyzed to ensure that an appropriate plan and design are put into place to provide proper coverage to each load tier in the event of a long-term power outage. Efforts should be made to reduce consumption wherever possible – not just to reduce energy wastage but also to reduce carbon emissions and energy costs. Ultimately, this effort enables you to understand your energy usage patterns and reduce the energy needed to maintain critical functions during a grid outage.

3. Determine costs and technology options

Diesel generators are no longer the solution to resilience, and colleges and universities need more intelligent and cleaner power technologies in their resilience strategy. Diesel generators can certainly play a role in a resilience plan. Still, other on-site generation and energy storage sources integrated into a bundled solution are best positioned to provide back-up power during an emergency while delivering sustainable, on-site energy that can reduce utility bills year-round.

One such integrated solution is an on-campus microgrid. Microgrids are power solutions comprised of on-site generation and energy storage sources that enable a campus to operate independently – disconnected from the grid – and act as a local miniature power grid. One prominent example is a microgrid with a solar PV array, a battery storage system, and a small back-up generator.

An on-campus microgrid enables colleges and universities to secure energy resilience and safeguard critical campus operations from potential risks. This particular microgrid configuration of solar PV, battery storage, and back-up generation ensures colleges and universities remain aligned with their sustainability and financial goals – by enabling them to generate and store renewable energy supply on-site, reduce energy and demand costs, and lower their carbon emissions.

This solution enables a campus to generate energy on-site while grid-connected, which reduces grid consumption and saves on energy costs. It also allows the campus to island itself from the grid in the event of a power loss and maintain its own reliable, uninterrupted supply of energy for the duration of the outage. It’s important that colleges and universities understand their energy usage profile and tiered resilience requirements to determine what technologies to implement, how to size each technology, and the design of the overall system.

Here’s how a microgrid works:

On-campus microgrid for colleges and universities
  1. Solar Solar PV system – Solar PV panels capture sunlight and convert it into energy for on-site use, or the energy can be stored in the battery.
  2. Battery energy storage system – The battery stores energy generated by the solar PV system for later use on-site to avoid consuming energy from the grid at the most costly times. During a power outage, the stored energy is used to power critical campus operations.
  3. Back-up generator – The back-up generator is powered off while the site is grid-connected. During an outage, it works in tandem with the battery energy storage system to provide power to critical campus operations.

Incentives are available to encourage the adoption of various technologies, like solar and storage. These incentives can lower the upfront cost of investing in these technologies. Implementing technology that delivers benefits year-round, not just during a power outage, will provide long-term energy savings that can free up budget for colleges and universities to invest in other campus needs.

4. Partner with local utilities

The task force should work closely with the institution’s local utility to promote grid stability. Programs should be developed to foster the implementation of renewable energy solutions and to increase understanding of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) and available rebates.

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Sustainable energy solutions for higher education institutions
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Implementing the plan

But planning is just the first step. The hard part is turning plans into action and action into results.

Building resilience can be complex, and microgrids are not a simple, one-off solution. A microgrid must integrate with your campus infrastructure and energy assets – and be right-sized for your critical energy requirements. Colleges and universities must think more broadly about how they use and source energy, as all components must work together to comprehensively address energy conservation, energy generation, energy monetization, and energy resilience.

Colleges and universities can benefit by partnering with resilience experts to help them scope and implement their resilience plans in line with their energy and infrastructure goals. An energy service company (ESCO) can review task force findings and recommendations, conduct energy audits on identified critical buildings, facilitate funding, and implement all necessary infrastructure upgrades.

An ESCO, like Centrica Business Solutions, can help you navigate all available opportunities and deploy secure, flexible, and affordable on-site energy generation technologies in-line with your resilience strategy. As an integrator of sustainable energy solutions, we can help you effectively manage risks with an energy strategy that reduces your institution’s exposure to grid failures, ensuring you remain aligned with your energy efficiency, security, and sustainability goals.