It was a warm October day — dream weather for an electric utility worker tasked with responding to power outages in the Pittsburgh area. Still, they were out and working on Duquesne Light Co.’s training ground at its Woods Run facility along the Ohio River.
Earlier this month, the Downtown-based power company announced that Woods Run would be the site of a transformative experiment: the construction of a microgrid — a localized power system that feeds a single building or neighborhoods with its own source of generation and can operate independently from the larger grid.
Partnering with engineering students at the University of Pittsburgh, the utility will study how such a technology could scale up to work.
Embarking on a technology that could upend the century-old design of producing and delivering electricity, Duquesne Light is confronting a reality that power industry officials, energy researchers and city officials agree has long been approaching. Customers, they say, want more choice in the kind of power they receive and that increasingly means cleaner sources of generation closer to the point of consumption.
“The comforting thing is we’re not alone,” said Ben Morris, senior manager of strategic planning and operational analytics. “The utility industry across the country is thinking through these same questions in real time.”
Evolving customer preferences
The modern Duquesne Light was formed in the early 1900s when more than 150 private companies operating alongside each other decided to work together. Though relatively small for an electric utility — some power companies can span several states — Duquesne Light functioned like any other: The company generated electricity at mammoth power plants, built long-range transmission lines and hooked up customers to the distribution network.
Currently, it delivers power to about 620,000 customers in Allegheny and Beaver counties.
But changes in customer preference have complicated that model.
The transformation began in the late-1990s, when Pennsylvania deregulated power generation — a move that forced utilities to sell their power plants to private companies and created a competitive market allowing customers to choose from dozens of plans with different rates and, sometimes, different kinds of fuel. More than 2 million Pennsylvania customers have elected to enroll in a separate plan from an electric retail supplier.
Utilities are left with the legal responsibility to deliver power to customers and are — at least in theory — neutral on the type of generation customers choose.
But in recent years, consumers have demanded more flexibility, and, this time, it could upend transmission and distribution of power. The microgrid is a response to “the next step in the evolution of what customers are looking for,” said David Fisfis, general counsel and vice president for regulatory affairs.
Mr. Morris, the planning and operations manager, said talks to explore microgrid technology began in earnest after the City of Pittsburgh signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy in July to research district energy, an umbrella term that includes microgrids and other efforts to put renewable energy in neighborhoods and construct a self-sustaining grid around them.
Two weeks later, Duquesne Light hosted a conversation including Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer, and Gregory Reed, a Pitt professor and director of the school’s Swanson School’s Electric Power Initiative, to help the city’s vision for district energy.
While microgrids can be built to accommodate renewable energy, Mr. Morris said the utility also saw an opportunity to better guard its system against major storms like Hurricane Sandy and a growing threat of cyberattacks.
The utility will spend next year mulling its microgrid at Woods Run, including Pitt engineering students in the design phase. Duquesne Light plans to have it operational by 2017.
The project will likely draw power from solar panels, wind turbines and natural gas-fired units. It will probably use battery storage technologies that can store power for dispatch during times the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
Generation could reach as high as 5 megawatts, depending on how many Woods Run buildings are looped into the system, Mr. Morris said.
In concept, scaling up a microgrid from Woods Run to supply clusters of buildings and neighborhoods around Pittsburgh invites some technical challenges, utility officials said. By and large, the microgrid would use cables and wires already maintained by the utility. But, given that the microgrid is not completely isolated and is connected to the larger grid, bringing new power sources into the system creates nuances with balancing load and keeping power quality equal for all customers, Mr. Morris said.
It might make sense for the utility to build and own the power generation feeding microgrids, utility officials said. The company also would have to upgrade switching and protection infrastructure, which determines in what direction power is flowing on the grid. Installing a microgrid would be the highway equivalent of changing out the road signs.
Gazing into the future, considering the past
There are development efforts right now that appeal to microgrids under the city’s district energy initiative, said Mr. Ervin, the mayor’s resilience officer. As part of broader redevelopment in the Lower Hill District, NRG Energy is considering building a plant that would provide steam heat as well as power to supply UPMC, Chatham Center, Consol Energy Center and others.
The New Jersey-based energy company, which operates a steam facility on the North Side, expects to have a feasibility study completed soon, said NRG spokesman David Gaier. The company has said the new plant would have the capacity to generate 100,000 pounds of steam an hour — about two-fifths the capacity of the existing North Shore plant.
The city is also targeting a 285-acre residential neighborhood in Larimer and a 178-acre waterfront development in Hazelwood for district energy projects, according to a map Mr. Ervin has assembled.
In the meantime, about 60 percent of the power consumed in Duquesne Light’s territory comes from FirstEnergy Corp.’s Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Beaver County. The other 40 percent is a mix of natural gas and coal.
Woods Run seems a fitting place to test everything out. The six-building campus contains its fortified operations center, an outdoor yard with power lines and simulated underground vaults for training, classrooms full of obscure equipment workers are quizzed to identify — and a mini-museum that showcases relics of the company’s past.
During a recent tour, director of operations Mike Doran explained that the company requires apprentice utility craft workers to undergo four weeks of annual training in addition to four to five years of experience to earn a journeyman designation, the highest level of mastery.
Overhead linemen begin training on power lines the company does not energize. Workers train with gradually increasing amounts of voltage so that the linemen learn how to approach commonly encountered tasks at different levels of power.
Utility officials said that despite the changing technology, workers’ core responsibilities would remain the same.
“I think our existing workers may need some amount of continuing education to keep up with the new technology,” Mr. Morris said. But he added, “I would venture that the fundamentals of their job won’t change at all.”
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.