Community Energy for a More Resilient Boston

The following is an excerpt from our Fall 2016 South End Stakeholders' Report, a report on the state of the South End real estate market and a glimpse into life in our neighborhood. You can download the full report here.

Ever heard of microgrids? Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind study explored microgrids and the possibility of greater utilization of these new community energy systems. The study represented a collaboration of various stakeholders, including the City of Boston, gas and electric utilities, policymakers, and the public. It was motivated by the fact that many of the areas that maintained power in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, did so thanks to microgrids, which can decouple from the larger utility grid and operate autonomously.

The Boston Community Energy Study chronicles research into a more resilient power system better able to withstand large weather events. It explores the potential for community energy solutions, identifies specific project opportunities to reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions, and determines feasible locations for microgrids by pinpointing the areas with highest energy usage. 

Researchers began by examining in detail precisely how energy is consumed in the City of Boston and by whom. The gathering of such data is a daunting task, and by law, the city cannot publicly release its exact findings. Sustainable Design Lab built a pilot energy model using thermal and electrical use estimates for 85,000 Boston buildings. The model was further re ned with energy-use data provided by Eversource. The simulated data achieved 94% accuracy level for electricity use and 83% for natural gas.

The next step was to formulate solutions that would be appropriate based on the identified energy consumption patterns. Using a software model called Distributed Energy Resources Customer Adoption Model (DER-CAM), MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) Research Division identified 22 potential microgrid sites of three distinct types. Ten multiuser microgrids would deliver power to mixed-use buildings from an anchor building, ten energy justice microgrids would serve affordable housing buildings, and two emergency microgrids would supply power to places that would provide food, warmth, and water during disaster events.

The Boston Community Energy Study is playing an important role in Massachusetts’ campaign to create community microgrids. The City of Boston is committed to offering technical assistance through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy called the Climate Action Champions. This would connect property owners with experts that perform no-cost feasibility studies for microgrids. The potential total benefits for both consumers and the city at-large range between $600 million and $1.7 billion over the 25-year analysis period. 

Key Vocabulary

Microgrid: a discrete energy system consisting of distributed energy sources (including demand management, storage, and generation) and loads capable of operating in parallel with, or independently from, the main power grid. They offer improved resilience to disruption and increase efficiency by exploiting combined heat and power (SHP) systems that reuse heat produced by the power generation process.

Anchor building: demands enough energy to justify the investment in local infrastructure upgrades for establishing a microgrid. It makes an infrastructure investment palatable to the city and encourages local stakeholders to consider connecting to the microgrid.

Multiuser microgrids: have a diverse set of buildings with balanced energy demand. They often include critical facilities (hospitals, police stations, shelters, etc.)

Energy justice microgrids: characterized by dense affordable housing, where energy costs are a significant portion of income. The include places of refuge during an outage. Like multiuser microgrids, they aim for balanced energy demand throughout the year.

Emergency microgrids: have concentrated areas of critical facilities, including hospitals, shelters, grocery stores, and food warehouses.

Source: “Boston Community Energy Study” by MIT Lincoln Lab and the Boston Redevelopment AuthorityMicrogrid Knowledge

Find this story and more in our Fall 2016 South End Stakeholders' Report. Read all about the latest real estate trends, forecasts, and an in-depth look at the South End community.