Wisconsin regulators have approved a unique program allowing a utility to provide customers with backup systems to store energy and maintain power during outages.
The Public Service Commission voted unanimously Thursday to authorize Xcel Energy’s “resiliency as service” pilot program, allowing the utility to install microgrids on the customer side of the meter.
Pioneered by researchers at UW-Madison, microgrids — which can include a combination of generators and batteries — are designed to function as self-contained systems that can seamlessly disconnect from the larger system, functioning as islands during power outages.
Microgrids were one of the technologies identified last year in a report detailing ways Wisconsin can spur economic growth while modernizing the electric grid and were included in recommendations from Gov. Tony Evers’ Task Force on Climate Change.
“I think this is an exciting program,” said Commissioner Tyler Huebner. “It’s the first of its kind.”
Under the approved pilot, Xcel can install microgrids for large industrial customers that need added reliability, and customers would pay off the projects over 10 years. There would be no cost to non-participating customers.
Huebner cautioned against using the program to box out private market developers who might otherwise provide such behind-the-meter services.
“My highest priority is no poaching,” Huebner said. “It’s important that interconnection is not a marketing tool for programs like this.”
The cities of La Crosse and Eau Claire have signaled support for the program and say they hope to use microgrids at their wastewater treatment plants and other public facilities. La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System has also endorsed the proposal, saying it would reduce upfront costs for customers while providing a simple process for improving reliability.
La Crosse utilities manager Bernie Lenz said by including battery storage, the city will be able to turn more methane into electricity and heat at the plant and other nearby municipal buildings, offsetting the need to burn natural gas.
“We are very excited,” Lenz said. “It gives us the option to be energy neutral.”
Madison-based Alliant Energy last year installed a solar-battery microgrid to power buildings at a state park near Sauk City, which the utility said could be done for about half the cost of rebuilding an aging power line to the remote site.
Xcel said it will use the pilot to gather data to evaluate similar non-wire alternatives but it is not proposing it as a replacement for the traditional distribution system.