This 104 kW solar array, shown under construction in 2012, is part of Eastern Mennonite University's microgrid. Credit: Secure Futures LLC

Following a trail blazed by a large dairy plant, a private college and a U.S. defense agency have collectively embarked on the second and third microgrids in Virginia while overcoming challenges integrating with their utilities.

Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency at the Fort Belvoir Army base in Northern Virginia are the latest organizations to embrace the benefits of generating, if needed, all of their power needs independent of the local utility. The first microgrid in the state began operating in 2015 at an HP Hood dairy plant in Winchester.

Dairy producer HP Hood

For HP Hood, one of the largest dairy producers in the country, the concept of a microgrid initially wasn’t embraced either by the company’s senior officers or its local utility, according to Dennis McNutt, the company’s director of facilities. He said his officers “pushed back on it quite a bit. They didn’t want to add complexity to something that already was a complex system.”

As for the utility, the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, “there was a learning curve on their side,” McNutt said. “At first, they didn’t quite understand what we were trying to do.”

Together with its project developer, ZF Energy, McNutt assessed its value by estimating what a loss of power would cost the company. That would mean re-sterilizing the dairy operations each time requiring 8-12 hours to recover. “We have a lot of controls to prevent bacteria from spoiling our products. You need real-time monitoring on all of that.”

Five months after the microgrid was tested and deployed in 2015, HP Hood experienced a power outage when one of the co-op’s transformers shut down. “I got the message on my cell phone saying the plant was in ‘island mode,’ separate from the grid. That was an exciting message to get,” McNutt said. “The plant didn’t even know it happened.”

With 15 megawatts of natural gas-fired generators, HP Hood has enough capacity and the to sell power it doesn’t need on any given day into the PJM regional wholesale power grid, which Virginia is a part of. The company also wanted its microgrid to be able to buy low-cost power from the PJM market, but state regulators rejected that request, citing a state law requiring any such purchases only from the co-op.

Fort Belvoir

Dominion Virginia Power’s reluctance to see a large customer build its own power generation capability didn’t stop the Department of Defense from pursuing a microgrid for its critical logistics work at Fort Belvoir.

The Intelligent Power & Energy Research Corp. (IPERC) and its parent company, S&C Electric, last month won a Department of Defense competitive bid to install a microgrid with “state-of-the-art cybersecurity” protections. When completed in 2018, the microgrid is designed to control 4 megawatts of power generation and incorporate energy storage.

IPERC Vice President John Carroll said key to what the military wants is an intelligent, decentralized control system to manage its grid and to island critical loads. That way, Carroll explained, the organization benefits from multiple levels of redundancy and resiliency.

Working with its project partners, including Dominion Virginia Power, Carroll said IPERC will deploy as many renewable and distributed resources as a client’s site and local rules will allow. Beyond that, neither he nor Darrell Massie, IPERC’s founder and the lead engineer on the project, would elaborate due to security constraints.

As for Dominion’s willingness to participate, Carroll said it is proving to be “not among the most forward-leaning utilities” about microgrids. But he acknowledged utilities are a “must-have partner.” Once the Defense Department approved the concept, he said Dominion was relatively quick to agree to help build it.

Eastern Mennonite University

Under an agreement finalized December 20, Eastern Mennonite University’s (EMU) microgrid will consist of three, 500-kilowatt natural-gas fired generators. Along with an existing 104-kW solar system, it will be able to power the 97-acre campus independent of the local grid and utility when needed. It is scheduled to begin operating by year’s end.

Nestled in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley, EMU is a private liberal arts college that prides itself as a leader in higher education with core values focused on “care for creation” and the community’s “common good.” Energy conservation, solar energy and LEED-certified, sustainable construction initiatives have long been campus-wide priorities.

EMU’s microgrid is being financed by Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds from the federal government. QECBs, as they are known, are funds earmarked for clean energy and water conservation projects passed on to state agencies for sub-allocations to local governments. The QECB program languished in Virginia until it was given a new life by then newly-elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe under his revival of the state’s energy plan in 2014.

Edwin Lehman, EMU’s Director of Facilities,said one significant benefit is the ability to stay below a certain usage threshold and secure a lower monthly demand charge rate from the utility.

Lehman said the concept of a microgrid “grew out of a presentation of a dozen-plus conservation and capital improvement measures. We selected the microgrid and others based on their long-term value, to address specific maintenance needs and their payback for the university.”

Jim Pierobon, a policy, marketing and social media strategist, was a founding contributor to Southeast Energy News. He passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018.

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