News & Updates

Boston’s Energy Ecosystem: microgrids and the value of district energy

Aug 28, 2015

by Travis Sheehan

This article originally appeared in District Energy magazine, published by the International District Energy Association. Used with permission.

Analysis performed by: MIT Sustainable Design Lab
Boston’s economy is fueled by a complex and vibrant ecosystem of private-sector firms that require highly reliable and competitive energy services. Reliability and resiliency are so essential that these entities are willing to pay a premium for better service than that provided by the traditional electricity grid. Given these urgent demands, it is not surprising to find thermal networks at the heart of Boston’s campus energy systems. Under Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston’s city government’s energy system planning has focused on understanding how these combined electric and thermal networks operate within the local energy ecosystem.

Pilot projects are being funded to help institutions, neighborhoods and business districts to deploy district energy, combined heat and power and microgrids – features that have already proven their value in systems throughout the Boston area. The benefits of district energy include:
  • increased investment opportunity through private and municipal spending, most typically through public-private partnerships;
  • increased attractiveness and competitiveness of the city because firms value energy security, disaster preparedness and lower energy costs;
  • reduced environmental impact through greater utilization of source fuel through cogeneration and eased integration of local renewable energy resources; and
  • capital kept within the community by localizing production revenues and creating construction jobs.
To spur interest in microgrid development, in 2014 the city of Boston co-hosted a series of microgrid workshops that convened regulators, utilities, customers, infrastructure investors and legal experts. The objective was to develop a business model for multi-user microgrids (MUMs). A high-level consensus was reached as the group focused on the unique problems presented by Massachusetts statutes and regulations, setting the table for a respectful collaboration. Boston is working with its utility partners to further the MUM concept through a pilot project.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority released an RFP for a citywide energy study to identify potential districts for robust energy improvements. Working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Building Technology Department and MIT Lincoln Labs, the study will model a range of scenarios with an emphasis on clean and resilient trigeneration microgrids. The study will explore zones of opportunity, citywide economic benefits, environmental benefits and resiliency impacts. District energy is also a key focus of Boston’s 2015 Climate Action Plan Update, as is resilient hardening for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

As municipal energy planning continues to evolve, new policies can enhance the potential for growth of district energy. Municipalities are supporting the efforts of their state regulators and market development agencies, supporting pilot projects as a proof of concept for 21st-century energy services. In doing so, cities and towns can play their role in creating value for businesses and residents through collaboratively planning energy systems.

After the success of the Boston Microgrid Workshops, the Urban Sustainability Director's networks granted the City of Boston $80 thousand dollars to re-create the workshop process for other municipalities at an event that took place in June of 2015 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Guests included the regulators, electric utilities, and city officials from Northampton, Somerville, Cambridge, Boulder Colorado, New York City, Washington D.C., and Minneapolis.

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