The heavily residential Gentilly section of New Orleans will receive several advanced microgrids after learning about their use from the Energy Transitions Initiative. | Photo by Phil Voss/NREL


When disaster strikes, the entire mood of a city shifts. It may not be a very big change at first, but anxiety and stress start to increase quickly after a few days without basic services. Given that, it's hard to imagine how strained the typically upbeat city of New Orleans became when, more than 20 days after Hurricane Katrina struck, only 75% of residents had power restored.

The immense challenges that New Orleans faced in the aftermath of Katrina were intensified by electric grid failures. System-wide power outages made it difficult to resume essential recovery activities such as flood control operations, water supply and treatment, transportation, emergency response, and banking. Even one of the city's safe havens—Memorial Medical Center—had its backup generator fail 48 hours after the storm.  

So, how can cities avoid such massive disruptions in the future?

To find an answer, the city of New Orleans reached out to the Energy Department's (DOE’s) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) in June 2015. EERE's Energy Transitions Initiative (ETI) was already helping high-risk island communities develop plans for disaster recovery and resiliency. With a group from DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories, the ETI team was able to modify its existing approach and present some promising, tech-savvy solutions to city planners during a half-day workshop. A follow-up workshop solidified the city's resolve to pursue advanced microgrids as a resiliency solution.


The underlying principle of a microgrid is not new—this technology has been around for 100 years or so. In fact, Thomas Edison initially provided power to several buildings at a time using this same approach. The first electric power system was actually a microgrid.

In contrast, today's energy landscape relies heavily on large transmission systems fueled by big power plants. These centralized generation stations push power out in response to the customer demand (also called “load”). That is, until an outage occurs. Because this system design often has no redundancy, it is broken until it is fixed. Take the August 2003 blackout, for example. It was the worst power blackout in history, affecting approximately 50 million customers in the northeastern United States and southern Canada. During situations like this, even customers with solar panels or other grid-tied resources can't access that power when the system is down.   

Now, there are plenty of examples of microgrids that are operating today. Many of these are located on military defense bases, college campuses, and even prisons throughout the United States. The typical microgrid acts like a standalone generation plant that can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, or renewable resources like solar panels.

The advanced microgrids that Sandia is pioneering with ETI's support incorporate modern computing capabilities to uphold a city's vital infrastructure in times of crisis. Although they are usually connected to the larger power system, advanced microgrids can seamlessly break away from the central grid and operate in insolation when needed. That means resources like small-scale wind turbines can be used in emergencies for local power, plus they are paying themselves off when fed back to the utility at premium rates. In addition to providing much-needed redundancy, these advanced systems also allow renewable energy systems to stay online during an outage, providing important emergency power.


The City of New Orleans didn't just stop with this idea. Rather, the local authorities actively sought out opportunities to fund and implement advanced microgrids so that a resilient power grid could fuel a resilient New Orleans.

In the first step, the city used the knowledge gained from the initial ETI and Sandia microgrid workshop to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD recently awarded New Orleans $141 million in unused Hurricane Sandy recovery funds to undertake the highest priority upgrades and implement advanced microgrid pilot projects in critical sections of the city.

Thanks to that intelligence, the heavily residential Gentilly section of New Orleans will receive several advanced microgrids through the HUD program. These pockets will not only become smart grid nodes, but also safe havens with centralized access to the things people need most during a disaster—food, services, and emergency medical help. The Gentilly microgrids are scheduled for completion in July 2018, but just knowing that a solution is coming can bring peace of mind to the residents of New Orleans.

As a second step, the city received a $1 million boost through DOE's Grid Modernization Lab Consortium (GMLC). This funding will allow researchers from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory to provide expertise in infrastructure modeling and energy systems resilience for the entire city. These experts are teamed with organizations that provide on-the-ground input, including the local utility Entergy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Rockefeller Institute, which developed the 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

As part of the GMLC, Sandia and Los Alamos’s joint National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center will help identify critical vulnerabilities in New Orleans’ power system. This collaborative effort will then weigh the costs and benefits of incorporating other advanced microgrids and infrastructure improvements throughout the city. In addition, this effort will produce a template for other communities to use when working to increase overall community resilience.

So when this work is completed, and a big storm hits or a cyber-attack knocks out part of the grid, the residents of New Orleans can keep their cool. Just head on over to the nearest microgrid-powered section of town, where the electricity—and maybe even the air conditioning—will be on.