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Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Sets Microgrid Plan in Motion

The Cuyahoga County Council has approved the creation of a county-run utility, which will be a first in Ohio. The council sees this move as the first step in establishing a microgrid system.

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(TNS) — Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s plan to establish one or more microgrid districts has cleared an early hurdle, with County Council agreeing to create a county-run utility department.

Today, the county will begin its search for a consultant to help find potential candidates to develop and operate the grids, pitched as a climate-friendly business-attraction tool aimed at manufacturers and other companies that require a constant stream of electricity.

“By providing power that has an up-time of 99.999 percent, we can guarantee that, even if the main power grid goes down, those on the microgrid won’t lose power for more than five minutes in a year,” Budish said in a recent news release.

“Our country is seeing stronger and more violent storms causing large-scale power outages, which can cost entities millions of dollars,” Sustainability Director Mike Foley said, noting that microgrids would “provide locally generated clean electricity that will minimize utility downtime and provide for a more resilient and cleaner electric grid.”

As imagined, a developer-operator would be responsible for building out power lines and related infrastructure. It would then serve as the businesses’ day-to-day energy provider, with the microgrid providing a back-up energy supply when there are outages.

The county wants to build microgrids in established business districts. That could include the area around Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and NASA, the future Brecksville site of Sherwin-Williams’ research and development facility, the former Brooklyn site of American Greetings, a manufacturing hub in Euclid, and the future Cleveland Foundation headquarters site in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood.

The county didn’t want to begin its search for an operator before what it saw as a necessary first step: creating a utility department to oversee and facilitate the projects. Such a utility would give the developer the legal authority required to operate a microgrid, and signal to developers that the county was serious about following through.

After months of hearings and delays, County Council last week signed off on creating a Division of Public Utilities — billed as the first of its kind in Ohio. The department is unique because utilities are usually handled on the city level. And because Cuyahoga County is a charter government, one of two in the state, it has the power to undertake government functions ordinarily left to cities.

Some council members are skeptical of the plan, and whether it would be a profitable endeavor for developers due to costly upfront infrastructure investments.

Members Nan Baker and Jack Schron, two of the council’s three Republican members, voted against the department at Tuesday’s meeting. Council’s eight Democrats, plus Republican Michael Gallagher, voted in favor.

Schron, in voting no, said he was “convinced the timing is not right” and that “this is not the proper place to be opening up a brand new department, with little experience and no background.”

In voting yes, Councilman Scott Tuma noted that establishing a utility department is a preliminary step toward a “future ability” to establish a “potential” grid.

Gallagher, in voting yes, echoed a similar sentiment. He said he still has lingering questions, but was “willing to roll the dice on this to see where it takes us” — given that Council would still have to vet and approve the hiring of a developer to actually build it.

Sunny Simon, who chairs council’s environment and sustainability committee, is supportive of the plan and the potential for green, resilient energy in Cuyahoga County.

“We’re watching what’s happening with climate change … unfold right in front of us. With Hurricane Ida, we watched the traditional grid go down,” Simon said. “This is what’s coming, this is what’s here. If we can implement some type of alternative way to get energy to our residents, then we are ahead of the game. We can’t afford to sit back, and if we do, it’s to our peril.”

Energy provided by microgrids could be sustainable in two ways, Foley said. The back-up power supply could be sourced locally from nearby solar panel arrays. And the day-to-day energy — which would flow off the main grid, through the microgrid, and to the company — could be sourced from a green supply.

“We’d look to make it as clean as possible,” Foley said. “We’d want a good price, but clean energy is pretty affordable right now — as affordable as natural gas, and especially coal.”

If the plan unfolds as intended, the county hopes to begin its search for a developer-operator by spring 2022, with design work and construction kicking off late next year.

The county utility division — headed by an administrator in the Public Works department — would help lay the legal and logistical groundwork for the grid or grids. The developer would then be responsible for construction and operations.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost — asked by Council to weigh in on the legality of a county utility — stated that cities would have to approve any county-led utility projects within their borders before they could move forward. County Council would have to approve any proposed utility agreements as well.

The microgrid plan stems from an initial vision pitched by Budish in 2019 to partner with Cleveland Public Power, using its existing lines, to bring a microgrid to downtown Cleveland. Those talks have stalled, but Foley has said the idea is not dead. In the meantime, the county has shifted its plans toward microgrid districts in suburban communities.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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