AlphaStruxure’s solar-powered, electric-bus-charging microgrid

A new county project in Maryland combines key decarbonization elements in a no-money-down package.
By Jeff St. John

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Montgomery County, Maryland is targeting carbon reductions of 80 percent by 2027 and 100 percent by 2035. That’s going to require a lot of renewable energy — and a lot of clean, mostly electric, vehicles to replace its fossil-fueled vehicles, with not much time to make that transition.

After a 2012 wind storm that knocked out power to much of the county for more than a week, the county is also eager to ensure that its carbon-free electricity and transportation can withstand grid outages.

On Tuesday, Montgomery County announced a contract with AlphaStruxure, a joint venture of electric equipment giant Schneider Electric and private equity giant Carlyle Group, that will combine its clean energy, electric vehicles and grid resiliency goals in one fell swoop.

And, like most of the energy-as-a-service infrastructure projects AlphaStruxure has deployed at sites including New York’s JFK airport and the Port of Long Beach in California, it’s going to come with no upfront cost to the county.

We underwrite that risk of integration and design, and solve that barrier” of upfront cost, AlphaStruxure CEO Juan Macias said in a Wednesday interview. Montgomery County will pay off the costs of the project by paying set rates for the clean energy, backed by generators, to power EV bus charging at its depot, as well as powering the offices and maintenance buildings at the site.

The 5.6-megawatt bus depot microgrid will combine 2 MW of solar PV canopies designed and built by SunPower, 2 megawatt-hours of Dynapower battery energy storage and a natural-gas-powered AB Energy USA generator that can be converted to run on carbon-neutral biogas over time for the balance of its power needs.

The on-site power supplies will avoid the potential impact of utility demand charges and time-of-use tariffs on the direct-current fast chargers and overhead chargers used to power the 44 electric buses being added to the fleet. Those utility tariffs can sock EV charging with excessive costs for drawing too much power from the grid, essentially imposing limits on how many buses can charge at a time.

Fleet operators…are really concerned about operational flexibility,” said Nicole Geneau, the AlphaStruxure VP of development leading the project. Powering all charging needs from a microgrid means operators no longer have to worry about when they’re buying electricity from the utility.” The microgrids should also be able to provide power that’s cleaner — and cheaper — than what operators get from their utility during the vast majority of the time the grid’s up and running.

Keeping buses charged amid broader grid outages was also a priority, she said. Montgomery County has already contracted Schneider to build two microgrids at its county public-safety headquarters and a correctional facility. It wanted the same level of reliability for its public transit fleet to ensure it could move people wherever they need to go under any conditions.”

At the same time, Geneau pointed out, This is a project to address greenhouse gas emissions and achieve [the county’s] net-zero carbon targets, [so] it was important to maximize renewables,” she said. It made sense to combine those clean power targets with a fleet electrification that includes replacing all 500 of the county’s buses with carbon-free models by 2035.

How microgrids, EV fleet charging and energy-as-a-service align

This combination of desire for blackout resiliency and clean on-site power is driving an increase in energy-as-a-service offerings from infrastructure investors. AlphaStruxure specializes in large-scale, multibillion-dollar projects that add solar, batteries and advanced energy controls to the self-powered district heating and cooling systems common at large corporate, government and institutional campuses. A similar project from Axium Infrastructure and Engie North America operates the Ohio State University’s Columbus, Ohio campus district energy system under a 50-year agreement.

In more recent years, smaller, more modular microgrid-as-a-service offerings have sprung up to meet the growing demand for energy resiliency from midsize commercial and institutional customers. This market includes players such as Enchanted Rock, Scale Microgrid Solutions, Siemens-Macquarie joint venture Calibrant Energy, and the GreenStruxure joint venture between Schneider and Huck Capital.

The energy-as-a-service model dovetails nicely with heavy-duty EV charging, which adds even more complexity to managing on-site power flows and costs. A number of companies specialize in this EV-charging-as-a-service model. California-based Amply works with multiple government and corporate customers, as well as with EV makers like BYD, to bundle the infrastructure and electricity costs into set monthly fees.

TeraWatt Infrastructure has identified sites in 18 states where it plans to finance and develop EV charging hubs. It is a recently unstealthed company led by former Google energy strategy chief Neha Palmer and backed with more than $100 million from Keyframe and Cyrus Capital.

Nuvve is a long-time vehicle-to-grid technology provider that has announced plans to finance and operate V2G charging hubs at the multi-megawatt scale. It has followed the lead of many other EV charging providers in going public via a special-purpose acquisition company.

Montgomery County is already the site of one of the largest such projects to be announced in the United States. In February, the county’s public school district contracted with startup Highland Electric Transportation to supply hundreds of EV school buses, along with the charging infrastructure and wraparound management services to support them.

Cities, counties and states that have been leading the push to electrify transports are now being matched by national goals. The Biden administration has proposed investing $174 billion in EV manufacturing and infrastructure, with a goal of reaching 500,000 chargers deployed by decade’s end.

We are going to have to add significant charging capability across the country,” AlphaStruxure’s Macias said — and it’s likely that on-site generation will have to play a role in that. Most urban environments are power-constrained. You can’t just go set up a new 10-megawatt draw of power in, say, New York City. We will need to pivot to on-site energy resources. It will be a mix of the bulk power system…and local solutions to power needs.”

(Article image courtesy of Alphastruxure) 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.