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Lessons from Sandy: how one community in storm's path kept lights on

President Obama toured Sandy-hit areas Thursday, even as some communities still wait for power. Princeton University avoided power outages by using a 'microgrid' – and the idea is spreading.

By Staff writer / November 15, 2012

President Obama, accompanied by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, hugs Debbie Ingenito Thursday on Staten Island's Cedar Grove Avenue, a street significantly impacted by hurricane Sandy.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Boston

President Obama on Thursday visited areas recovering from hurricane Sandy, which knocked out power to more than 8 million people. Power is finally coming back on for the last few in New York and New Jersey who have yet to regain it after the lights went out more than two weeks ago.

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But lessons learned since darkness descended on central New Jersey in the wake of Sandy's wrecking winds include at least one tiny triumph: Princeton University's leafy campus stayed lit by tapping its own smaller version of the power grid – a "microgrid."

Microgrids were a hot topic among some policymakers even before Sandy hit. Backup generators may fail to start, run out of fuel, or break down. But microgrids like the one at Princeton act as a highly efficient, miniature version of the big power grid, operate 24/7, and tap into reliable natural gas-fired generators or perhaps wind turbines or even solar panels with battery storage.

Spurred by hurricane Irene and a bad snowstorm last October, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have had teams researching energy options to hedge against widespread grid outages from increasingly violent storms. Microgrids, they found, can supply power to critical shelters, hospitals, and city centers even if the grid is out for days on end. But they cost a lot to set up and legal barriers have slowed development.

Even so, microgrids are getting a hearing nationally as well as along the stricken East Coast. The US power grid received a D-plus grade from the American Council of Civil Engineers in 2009. Power outages averaged 120 minutes per customer last year and were growing, Department of Energy and industry data show.

"This new storm [hurricane Sandy] will undoubtedly accelerate interest in developing microgrids," says Peter Asmus, a senior analyst for Pike Research, a market research firm that tracks microgrid development.

Minutes after trees fell on utility lines two weeks ago, knocking out power to Princeton, the university's energy manager, Ted Borer, began checking the school's big natural gas-fired turbine generator. Serving 12,000 students and faculty, the generator routinely supplies all the school's heat and hot water and half its electricity – the rest usually coming from the local utility.

After a few minutes in the dark, Mr. Borer flipped switches that restored power to much of the campus including one dining hall, the dormitories, and all the critical lab experiments. Some classrooms and administration buildings remained dark. But for nearly two days the campus was on its own power, which allowed some students to begin organizing efforts to help others in the surrounding city, which was still in the dark.

"We designed it so the electrical system for the campus could become its own island in an emergency," Borer says. "It cost more to do that. But I'm sure glad we did."

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