Innovation Ecosystem

Newport on the verge of building its own microgrid

As part of an integrated resilience initiative, the first phase of the microgrid will feature solar and state-of-the-art storage technologies

Image courtesy of the City of Newport

The map of Phase 1 of a planned microgrid in Newport, part of an integrated resilience initiative being developed by a public-private consortium. The planned microgrid would be the first one built in Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/13/17
With the planned construction of the first microgrid in Rhode Island as part of a public-private consortium, Newport has positioned itself on the front lines of resilience in re-inventing itself in the face of climate change and technological innovation.
Will the R.I. General Assembly examine legal remedies to enable homeowners and businesses with renewable energy sources not to be disabled from the grid during blackouts and storm outages? What kinds of hubs of distributed generation can be created in Rhode Island as an alternative to building large new power plants? What other communities could follow Newport’s lead and develop microgrids? Will CommerceRI consider the potential to create an innovation campus in Newport to take advantage of the existing plans for a new green infrastructure? What are the opportunities to create incentives in new housing construction for renewable energy and storage systems?
At some point soon, Rhode Island will have to make choices about its future energy infrastructure: to move ahead with new fossil-fuel power plants such as Invenergy in Burrillville and the proposed liquid natural gas facility by National Grid in Providence, or to invest in renewable technologies.
The Newport microgrid project, in many ways, offers a counterbalance to the argument that construction of new power plants equals more jobs. Investments in cleaner, smarter, more innovative ways to produce energy as a way to connect the community being served may offer a more sustainable job creation formula, one that boosts the local economy.
It could change the political equation.

NEWPORT – If all goes well with pending approval by the Newport City Council, work could soon begin in the next few months on building an electricity microgrid, the first of its kind in Rhode Island, as part of a larger effort to create a portfolio of integrated resilience initiatives to serve as a national model for resilience.

The larger effort has targeted the 400th anniversary of the founding of Newport in 2039 to position the city as the “representative ecosystem for global thought leadership and the applied innovation center for integrated resilience.”

The community microgrid, to be built as part of a public-private partnership, would enable the city of Newport to keep critical facilities and shelters online during a natural or man-made disaster.

The first phase of the microgrid project is planned to include critical facilities: the main fire station, Newport City Hall, Thompson Middle School [as a potential shelter-in-place facility] and police headquarters, according to Paul J. Carroll, director of Civic Investment for the City of Newport.

The microgrid would incorporate renewable energy sources, including rooftop solar, and a state-of-the-art battery storage system, according to Carroll.

The potential second phase would extend the microgrid corridor northward to include Newport Hospital.

A potential third phase would be to build out to the microgrid system to include the wastewater treatment plant, a sustainable agriculture project at CCRI, the Newport Housing Authority, and the Newport Innovation District, according to Carroll.

Describing the context for the microgrid, Carroll told ConvergenceRI: “We are exploring a systems approach to transform the challenges of ocean-related climate change into economic, commercial, employment and civic infrastructure enhancement opportunities.”

Further, Carroll continued, “Newport is bringing impact and other sources of private capital and expertise into the [resilience] project portfolio from the beginning,” in order to provide diversified funding sources as well as technical and operational experience to help launch the initiatives.

The integrated resilience initiative was developed in response to a national RFP issued by the City of Newport in 2015 to create a public-private partnership with a private consortium.

The initial consortium included: Infralinx Capital, The Louis Berger Group, Gilbane Construction, and Denton’s Law Firm, working in partnership with the City of Newport.

After the initial agreement, the consortium added an impact investment firm called G2 Investments, and formed the Newport Project Development Company.

The goal is to use Newport as a national test case/incubator around resilience as it pertains to ocean-related climate change and as a national test case of how the public, private and impact investors can form a new innovation ecosystem for the development, execution and management of “civic infrastructure,” according to Carroll.

The microgrid project will involve yet unnamed private partners and investors as well as National Grid.

Bringing good things to life
The microgrid project in Newport grew out of a conversation at a meeting of the New England Clean Energy Council at GE Power headquarters in Schenectady, N.Y., four and half years ago, according to Carroll.

There was interest expressed in building a microgrid as a test case, and Newport fit the four potential categories being sought:

A community that had a history of having been hit hard in the past by major storms, with the strong likelihood of future storms. [Carroll cited the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954]

The location of major defense installations and contractors nearby [Carroll cited the Newport Naval Station and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center]

The potential of large new buildings to look at the application of smart building technologies [Carroll cited the new, 60-acre Newport Innovation District]

The location of critical municipal-owned facilities within a contained geographic area [Carroll cited the fact that Newport is an island]

Following the approval by the Newport City Council, initial work will be focused on determining energy loads and ironing out the details of power purchase agreements, according to Carroll.

In the first phase of building the microgrid in Newport, the source of renewable energy will be solar, according to Carroll, with potential diversification as the microgrid project moves forward.

Without revealing the name of the private partner, Carroll said the microgrid would serve as a test case for better energy storage technologies.

Larger sustainable plans
In addition to the microgrid, plans for the resiliency initiative in Newport also include a potential sustainable urban agriculture project, a hydroponics facility to built on five acres adjacent to the CCRI campus in Newport, according to Carroll.

The new facility would employ state-of-the-art hydroponics technology pioneered by the Dutch, as part of a large glass structure, financed by a U.S. firm.

Carroll said that the city would be working with stakeholders, including the local Health Equity Zone, as part of its investment with green infrastructure, to develop the appropriate skills and job training components to fill newly created jobs with benefits with local residents.

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