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Cuyahoga County is Betting on Microgrids to Power the Area's Business Future

Cuyahoga County's proposed microgrid sites.
Cuyahoga County's proposed microgrid sites.

Cuyahoga County is launching its own utility department. But instead of investing in a huge power grid the county is keeping the scale much more modest.

Officials are looking toward microgrids to keep the lights on even when other parts of the region are stuck in the dark.

The technology isn’t new but for energy experts, it could be the wave of the future.

Each winter lake-effect storms hammer Cuyahoga County. 2020 was no exception when storms knocked out power to tens of thousands of customers.

But what if there was an alternative that could keep the lights on?

Energy experts say microgrids fit the bill.

“So, if the rest of the electric grid drops or loses power, a microgrid should be able to stay up and should be able to provide power to its customers even when the area around it has gone dark,” said Grant Goodrich, director of Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University.

He said microgrids are exactly that: smaller versions of the larger electrical grid that can power a defined area.

Unlike diesel-powered backup generators many business rely on, a microgrid is always connected to the larger power grid, and it can separate itself when it needs to.

Goodrich calls that “islanding.” And said the best example is Hawaii.

“Obviously, Hawaii is not sharing electricity between the different islands in the state. Each island has to have its own generation and distribution system for electricity, and so that I think that's a really good image to think of when we when we talk about what a microgrid is,” he said.

Goodrich said Cuyahoga County’s plan is different because it’s being billed as an economic driver for the region.

Mike Foley is the sustainability director for the county. He said they’ve identified six spots to build microgrids.

“As storms become stronger and stronger throughout the country because of climate change, microgrids are going to be more and more important because it's going to be a need to really have resilient electricity, especially for kind of commercial industrial manufacturing,” Foley said.

For large manufacturers Foley said a blackout could lead to huge profit losses.

So microgrids sound like a great solution, right? There’s just one small detail: There’s no price tag for the project yet.

“It’s very expensive to build from the ground up and almost no microgrid in the United States does that,” said Shubo Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate specializing in power system economics and operations at Cleveland State University.

“Another problem is who is paying for the project, right? (A) microgrid by itself, it can really hardly make any money. One of the major selling points for the microgrid the resiliency,” Zhang said.

The county is counting on that resiliency to draw in corporate customers.

But Sustainability Director Mike Foley said the county won’t actually be footing the bill.

“We will offer a concession agreement to a developer who will finance, build out and operate the microgrid on our behalf,” he said.

He said the developer will make its money back from the businesses that use the microgrid, with the county getting a smaller fee.

But he says the project is going to take time to get off the ground.

They still have to hire an administrator, find the design firm and contractors, and partner with business customers.

He estimates the first system could be online as early as two years from now and be powered by renewables like solar farms.

“We want the cleanest, greenest source of electricity you can find or can build into this thing,” Foley said,

He said there is already interest from Sherwin Williams, but Nestle, Cleveland Hopkins Airport, and NASA Glenn Research Center are interested, too.

So, if microgrids are part of the future of powering some of Cuyahoga County’s biggest businesses, what about its residents?

Right now there’s no concrete plans for the county to provide microgrid power to households.

But eventually Foley thinks maybe the technology could trickle down into more residential applications.

“Maybe it’s streetlights for cities? Maybe it’s electrical vehicle charging stations?” he said.

Could other counties across Ohio follow suit and create their own microgrid districts?

For now it’s not likely. Ohio law says only chartered counties are able to run their own utilities, meaning just Cuyahoga and Summit.

But in the future, who knows?

A recent study expects the global microgrid market to increase substantially from $8 billion in 2019 to $40 billion by 2028.

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