Floodwaters in Hoboken on October 31, 2012. Gary Hershorn/Reuters

After devastating flooding in 2012, the New Jersey city is racing to develop its own backup power supply.

With 80 percent of her city underwater and the power out, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer climbed the stairs to a senior apartment facility and found a woman, alone and in tears. She’d been trapped in her home, unable to leave the building without elevator service, and she needed her medication.

“They left us in the dark,” she said.

Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 gave Zimmer a new priority for her administration—preparing this New Jersey city of 50,000 across the Hudson River from Manhattan for the next disaster. Low-lying Hoboken all but submerged in Sandy’s wake: Flooding knocked out three power substations and left residents without electricity for more than two weeks. With no means of charging cellphones, many of those who sheltered in place were essentially stranded and isolated. “I remember driving through the dark city streets, wondering, Who has an emergency right now? They can’t reach us,” Zimmer recalls.

What Hoboken needed, she decided, was backup—a way to keep the lights on and elevators working for a few essential facilities, not just police stations and hospitals but grocery stores, pharmacies, and senior housing complexes. A microgrid, in other words: a self-sustaining power generation and distribution network that could kick in when the big grid goes down, keeping strategic parts of the city running after a blackout or weather-related catastrophe.

Hoboken is a commuter city, full of apartment dwellers and seniors who don’t have cars: Evacuating everyone before a storm is neither easy nor, Zimmer believes, advisable. “If we can help them shelter in place, they’re actually safer,” she says. “I felt like I was sending people into harm’s way. Not everyone has a place to go.”

Microgrids aren’t a new idea. “Before we had a centralized system, we had a lot of microgrids,” says Liz Delaney, program director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps, which helped advise on the Hoboken project. Today, power networks that support self-contained facilities like college campuses or military bases aren’t uncommon (Princeton University’s natural-gas-powered microgrid kept the campus lights on after Sandy). But powering a mix of public and private buildings in one city hasn’t been done in the U.S. “Hoboken’s really on the bleeding edge as far as trying to make this a city-driven project,” Delaney says.

There’s a reason why: It’s very complicated, since you’d need to coordinate with public utilities, city and state governments, and private property owners. “The multitude of stakeholders is a huge challenge,” Delaney says. A host of legal and regulatory hurdles also await any city that attempts to construct its own energy island, and the costs are predictably daunting. An early feasibility study put the price tag for a Hoboken microgrid big enough to power 50 buildings at $50 million. (Lighting up the whole city—which isn’t in the cards—would have cost $450 million.)

A microgrid in action: On normal days (top), the electric utility provides power. But during a blackout (center), the main grid goes down—and the microgrid kicks in (bottom). (Environmental Defense Fund)

Sandy gave Americans a terrifying glimpse of just how vulnerable the highly populated coastal Northeast is to extreme weather. The Obama Administration formed a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy task force in 2012 to explore resiliency strategies, which led to Hoboken receiving a grant from the Department of Energy to study the microgrid idea. Sandia National Laboratories hammered out an analysis that identified 55 essential buildings that could be plugged into the network.

Then Hoboken hired Greener By Design, a firm that consults on renewable energy, to wrangle the players and identify the many legal issues involved in building a community-based microgrid. Part of their charge was also to design a “Resilient Cities Toolkit” to assist local officials and help other cities interested in pursuing the same idea. “This hasn’t been done before in New Jersey,” says Gail Lalla, Greener By Design’s vice-president of operations. “The economics of building a microgrid can be complex. Who owns it, the city or the utility?”

To further complicate matters, Hoboken wanted to make the network as green as possible—no mean feat, since microgrids typically rely on fossil-fuel generators and can be more carbon-intensive and dirty than the main grid. Currently, planners hope to employ a mix of solar power and cogeneration plants that produce both heat and electricity. They’re also positioning the Hoboken network as an eco-friendlier alternative to the gas-fired “peaker plants” that utilities rely on to cover periods of high electrical demand, such as heat waves. When power demand rises, the microgrid could feed its juice into the main grid, easing the stress on the system. “We don’t want to build an asset that’s only used in case of emergency,” says Caleb Stratton, Hoboken’s principal planner.

Despite the considerable costs of creating a microgrid, it could end up being both cheaper and safer to build locally distributed grids than expand the electrical capacity for an entire region. “As we get hit with more and more heat waves, wouldn’t it make more sense to have microgrids that kick in to provide the extra energy?” Zimmer asks. “If you look at the investment that utilities need to make, this could be more cost effective.”

That’s exactly the issue that cities up and down the Northeast are now facing. New York recently directed $40 million toward the development of local power networks within the state, and in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County, the utility PECO Energy is proposing building a $35 million experimental microgrid in Concord Township, outside of Philadelphia

But right now it’s Hoboken that’s in the lead as far as actually getting a microgrid up and running. Even though a host of funding and engineering issues remain to be solved, the city hopes to install a conduit for the system beneath Washington Street, the city’s main downtown corridor, this fall. “I feel a sense of urgency,” Zimmer says. “With every hurricane season there’s risk. We’re pushing as hard as we can. “

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