Columbus’ First Microgrid Begins Operation

February 20, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

A solar-powered microgrid provided by Eaton recently came online to provide backup water services in Ohio’s state capital. 

Ireland-based power management firm Eaton Corporation recently announced its role in developing the first renewable microgrid project in Columbus, Ohio. The company inked a contract with AEP Ohio, a division of utility giant American Electric Power, to install a solar-powered water backup system at the Tussing Water Booster Station. The site recently began operations with 100 kilowatts (kW) of solar generation and 440 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of battery energy storage


A solar/battery storage microgrid recently started supplying backup power at a water station in Columbus, Ohio. Image used courtesy of Eaton and AEP Ohio


Eaton said the project would help Columbus deliver clean water through extended power outages. With the new microgrid system installed, the city’s water tower can operate in “island mode” during outages to keep water running. At the same time, Eaton’s intelligent microgrid controls provide voltage regulation to help the system manage demand response and balance loads. 


Microgrids for Backup Power 

Microgrids often consist of solar arrays paired with battery energy storage systems. They are increasingly popular as renewable electricity generators for neighborhoods, small-scale developments, and rural communities. They can also be used as an emergency source of renewable backup power supply in the place of traditional on-site diesel-powered generators. 


Video used courtesy of the City of Columbus


The Tussing Water Booster Station has batteries sized to run a pump providing backup power for eight hours. The new microgrid is the first of several upcoming projects headed by the city’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to build five pilot microgrids to support its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 45% before 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. 


Microgrids for Grid Reliability

Columbus’ debut microgrid operation comes as Ohio’s grid officials look for new ways to increase grid reliability in severe weather. Last summer, a record heatwave led to higher-than-normal electricity demand as customers turned up their air conditioning units. This prompted emergency procedures by AEP Ohio, the state’s largest utility with 1.5 million residential and commercial customers. Further exacerbated by damaged infrastructure from a recent line of storms, the heatwave led AEP Ohio to implement a “load shed” to prevent more outages by shutting down portions of its distribution system. 

Outages through the storm aftermath and subsequent load shed affected more than 605,000 customers from June 13-19, according to a report released last month from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). More than half of those customers live in AEP Ohio’s Columbus service district, where the metric of customer minutes of interruption (CMI) reached 195.9 million minutes—a sizable portion of the total CMI across all of AEP Ohio’s six districts (487.6 million). 


This graphic from the U.S. Department of Energy shows how a typical microgrid system works. Image used courtesy of the DOE


Microgrids are one way to counter the effects of heat waves and other peak-demand events. However, grid reliability issues are inevitable with aging infrastructure and equipment. 

According to AEP Ohio, 350 of its transformers, 475 breakers, and 560 regulators are expected to reach the end of their life cycles over the next ten years. The company recently submitted a proposal to PUCO last month to invest $2.2 billion in reliability projects over six years. If approved, the plan will replace over 5,500 miles of power lines and hundreds of substation equipment units. 

Grid improvements are an ongoing effort for AEP Ohio. The company received approval from PUCO in 2021 to launch the third phase of its grid modernization plan, in which it would invest more than $220 million over seven years to install smart grid equipment in rural areas. The first two phases installed over 900,000 smart meters, and AEP Ohio aimed to add another 475,000 when its plan was approved in December 2021. 

More recently, AEP Ohio’s 2022 improvement plans involved upgrading more than 50 miles of electric lines and replacing 544 electric poles across its Central Ohio service area, which includes Columbus.