Cleveland, Ohio.
Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Eddie~S / Creative Commons

Cuyahoga County plans to use microgrids to bolster climate change resilience and overall reliability for key manufacturing and industrial operations in the Greater Cleveland area. The work furthers the county’s goals of adding clean energy and promoting economic development.

Most of the time, microgrids operate as part of the electrical grid, often supplying some electricity from renewable energy or combined heat and power. When power on the main grid goes down, the microgrid can switch to “island mode” and supply electricity for essential operations.

“We’re focused on industrial companies and customers because we really want to bring resiliency to manufacturing in Ohio,” said Valerie Katz, Cuyahoga County’s assistant director of sustainability, speaking at the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association Energy Conference in Westerville on Sept. 8.

Weather events caused roughly five-sixths of major outages in the U.S. from 2000 to 2021. And the average annual number of weather-related power outages from 2011 to 2021 was roughly 78%, more than that for the preceding 11 years, Climate Central reported on Sept. 14. Climate change will continue to increase the frequency and intensity of various types of extreme weather, which could further strain the grid.

Some companies have lost batches of product and incurred extra expenses from workers’ lost time, Katz said. “Even short-duration outages are a frustration because it leads to having to restart and reset sensitive equipment,” she added.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Ohio’s energy infrastructure a “C” on its 2021 Report Card for American Infrastructure.

Last year customers in FirstEnergy’s Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. territory, which includes large parts of Cuyahoga County, lost power for an average of 395 minutes. That comes to more than 6.5 hours. That number includes major weather events or other interruptions that regulators didn’t count toward the performance standard of 135 minutes.

The county’s planned microgrids are supposed to keep power on for their customers 99.999% of the time, Katz said. That would cut downtime to just 5 minutes per year.

The county hopes to focus first on industrial clusters in the Cleveland suburbs of Euclid and Brooklyn, plus the area around Cleveland Hopkins Airport and an adjacent NASA complex. More areas could be added later.

“We foresee onsite solar and backup battery storage as important components in most cases,” Katz said. Depending on the location, other possibilities include combined heat and power, hydrogen fuel cells, or nearby brownfield and greenfield solar farms.

A 4-megawatt solar farm at a former landfill site in Brooklyn, Ohio, could serve as a source of power for the microgrid in that area, although some logistics must be worked out with Cleveland Public Power. Other on-site or nearby distributed generation sources might also provide backup. An industrial corridor along East 222nd Street in Euclid would likely use capacity from businesses’ rooftop solar and batteries for backup, Katz said

Cuyahoga County created its division of public utilities last September to carry out the microgrid projects. Legal authority comes from the county’s charter government form, which voters approved in 2009 in the wake of a local corruption scandal. That charter basically gives the county the same powers cities have under the Ohio Constitution, including the right to “acquire, construct, own, lease and operate” a public utility.

But there’s a catch: Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost ruled last year that the county can’t operate an electric utility unless it also has the consent of any municipalities where the utility would operate.

Euclid and Brooklyn passed resolutions earlier this summer, Katz said. Brook Park, which includes areas near the airport, passed a resolution on Sept. 6.

Discussions are ongoing with Cleveland’s city government about how the county utility will operate in relation to Cleveland Public Power. Other areas served by the county utility will operate side-by-side with FirstEnergy’s Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, but microgrid customers would be billed only by the county microgrid and should be exempt from various other FirstEnergy charges, Katz said. Additional hurdles include making any necessary arrangements with grid operator PJM.

Cleveland State University and Go Sustainable Energy are already on board as consultants for the county. The county plans to contract with additional companies for development of the microgrids and other utility operations. This summer, roughly three dozen companies responded to the county’s preliminary request for information.

“We hope to select our utility operator by early next year,” Katz said.

Money matters

The county’s earlier plans had called for a microgrid for Cleveland’s downtown district. But it was hard to identify who in that district would agree to pay for the plan and its added reliability, said Grant Goodrich, who heads the Great Lakes Energy Initiative at Case Western Reserve University. Also, power distribution lines are generally buried in much of Cleveland’s central downtown district, so it’s already more protected from weather-related outages.

The county’s shift to multiple microgrids for clusters of industry should work better for lining up customers who are willing to value the added reliability and resilience. The county anticipates paying for projects through PPAs, or power purchase agreements, with customers, Katz said.

Attorney Miranda Leppla, who heads the environmental law clinic at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, commended Cuyahoga County’s department of sustainability for its focus on reducing climate change impacts and improving resilience.

“I hope that this project will be able to make it through all the different hoops it will have to jump through, because it’s a really important project for the county,” Leppla said.

Companies elsewhere may benefit from microgrids as well. Projects can be scaled to fit the needs of multiple users or even a single user, said Greta Foster, Eaton’s product line manager for distributed energy resources and microgrids, who also spoke at the Sept. 8 OMA energy conference.

The main reasons companies want to add microgrids are to boost sustainability, resilience for essential operations, and energy efficiency, Foster said. On the sustainability front, more and more companies have set targets for adding renewable energy or cutting carbon emissions. Microgrids provide a way to do that.

As for resilience, Eaton got a “gut punch and a big wake-up call” when back-to-back hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Foster said. Many of the island’s people were without power for more than four months. Eaton was lucky to get its circuit breaker factory in Arecibo up and running again after a week of downtime. But the shutdown disrupted work on one of the company’s core products. And there were extra costs and hassles to get diesel fuel to run the generator.

Microgrid projects also can boost energy efficiency and help companies reduce how much power they draw generally from the grid, Foster said. “We don’t want to get hit with those peak demand charges.”

Paying for microgrids can be easier with energy-as-a-service financing, which Foster calls a game changer. Basically a company enters into a PPA and related contracts with a developer, who actually builds the project. So, the microgrid costs are paid out over time as operating costs, instead of from the firm’s capital expenditures budget.

Along those lines, Eaton has paired up with Enel X for microgrids at the circuit breaker factory and another facility elsewhere in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the first of those projects, at Arecibo, won’t be operational until mid-2023. Widespread power outages that hit the island on Sunday show why microgrids continue to matter for reliability. “It’s timely,” Foster said.

Incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act can make the economics of microgrids even more attractive, Foster said. Among other things, the law lets microgrids qualify for transferrable incentive tax credits. The credits start at a base rate of 6% but jump to 30% if projects meet prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements. Projects can qualify for an additional 10% bonus if they use domestic content.

Up to 30% more in tax credits might be available if a microgrid project meets criteria for environmental justice projects or energy communities, Foster noted. And those projects can help not just companies, but people living in the qualifying areas.

“When you think about the macro trends, we think there’s really no better time to stand up a microgrid,” Foster said.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.