IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Department of Energy Seeks Input on $1B Rural Energy Program

The Department of Energy has announced that it is now seeking public input on a new $1 billion program that stands to benefit energy generation in areas with 10,000 or fewer inhabitants.

Clean energy
(TNS) — West Virginia is dotted with rural communities that have struggled to secure affordable, reliable power, especially during extreme weather events poised to become more frequent as climate change worsens.

The state had the highest total number of electric power outages and percentage of outages among customers throughout the country for most of the week that followed ice storms that caused power grids across the country to fail in February 2021.

A 2012 derecho left 1.6 million West Virginians without power, some for two weeks. The state's increase in outage length and frequency throughout the 2010s outpaced a national rise in those categories, according to federal Energy Information Administration data.

American Electric Power and FirstEnergy subsidiaries responsible for most of the electric power in the state have said that tree-related outages drive West Virginia's high prevalence of power interruptions, including rainfall and storm-caused tree uprooting and hillside erosion.

Meanwhile, West Virginia electric bills have ballooned amid the state clinging to coal for the vast majority of its electricity as other states embrace alternatives.

State ratepayers faced a 90% climb in average residential electricity retail price from 2005 to 2020, per Energy Information Administration data. Only Michigan had a greater increase by percentage.

A new federal push to improve energy systems in rural areas could help address West Virginia's power problems.

The Department of Energy has announced that it is seeking public input on a new $1 billion program to benefit energy generation in areas with 10,000 or fewer inhabitants.

Passed by Congress last year, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act appropriated $1 billion to the Department of Energy through fiscal year 2026 to improve the reliability and availability of energy and environmental protection from adverse impacts of energy generation.

The Department of Energy issued a request for information soliciting public input on the $1 billion program earlier this month. Feedback to the request for information can be sent to until Nov. 28 at noon ET.

The Department of Energy has said the Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas (ERA) program may support siting or upgrading transmission and distribution lines, slashing greenhouse gas emissions from rural energy generation, increasing energy efficiency and developing microgrids — localized grids that can operate autonomously.

The concept of microgrids gained attention in West Virginia last month when state officials announced a $500 million and manufacturing development in Jackson County.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables will supply solar energy to a titanium aerospace parts manufacturing facility in Ravenswood and be able to sell the energy to customers within a special industrial business district established by the state Legislature last month.

But microgrids aren't just for special business districts.

A recent study prepared for the West Virginia Office of Energy observes that microgrids can provide increased resilience to critical facilities against natural disasters and severe weather events.

A study released last year by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group that quantifies climate risk, found that more than half of West Virginia's critical infrastructure — including fire, police and power stations — are at risk of becoming inoperable due to flooding. That was a higher share than in any other state.

Renewable microgrids can operate year-round to provide emergency power, partly through energy storage. They can power a community when not connected to the electric grid when disaster strikes. The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has touted renewable microgrids' ability to yield energy and cost savings while also providing resiliency.

The report published last month by the Smart Electric Power Alliance, a nonprofit that provides research aimed at accelerating a transition to cleaner energy, identified opportunities to deploy microgrids throughout West Virginia.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance identified 14 potential community microgrids after establishing criteria and metrics to determine suitable sites and communities that have the highest risk and could benefit from a potential microgrids for resilience project.

Those microgrids were in a wide variety of population areas: on the West Side and East End of Charleston, the Westmoreland neighborhood of Huntington, Bluefield, Clendenin, Elkins, Fairmont, Martinsburg, Moorefield, New Martinsville, Rivesville, Ronceverte, Weston and Winfield.

The report defined community microgrids as multiple-customer grids serving several critical sites within a half-mile radius of each other.

Microgrids could provide from four to 48 hours of clean energy resilience using only a battery energy storage system and onsite solar photovoltaic generation, depending on how those generation systems are sized.

Projected design costs range from roughly $1.4 million to $9.6 million depending on the generation system sizing, with costs of the "high-renewable" microgrid design that would provide 24 to 48 hours of clean energy resilience at the upper end of that range.

The microgrids would operate at a cost of roughly $575 to $640 per kilowatt-hour served if sized to provide 24 to 48 hours of clean energy resilience, $440 to $500 per kilowatt-hour for 12 to 24 hours of clean energy resilience and $240 to $280 per kilowatt-hour if sized to provide four to six hours of clean energy resilience.

The report identified 353 sites that provide critical functions and are prioritized single-customer microgrids serving Federal Emergency Management Agency lifelines like water treatment and law enforcement facilities as well as resilience hubs like community centers and essential businesses like grocery stores and gas stations.

Microgrid study project stakeholders met to provide input on data collection and decide microgrid suitability criteria for the study earlier this year. Stakeholder organizations included American Electric Power, FirstEnergy and the West Virginia Public Service Commission, each a Smart Electric Power Alliance member. Other stakeholder organizations included the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and Solar Holler, a Shepherdstown-based electrical contracting firm and solar installer.

Critical infrastructure included hospitals and other health care facilities, water and wastewater treatment facilities, emergency services, community centers, law enforcement and education facilities, gas stations, grocery and convenience stores, and military installations.

The report says study results should be used by utilities, local and state governments and other industry stakeholders to move from planning to the implementation phase of microgrid development. Potential next steps to follow up on the study are conducting more engineering and financial benefit-cost analysis of sites.

"A key component of all microgrid development and implementation is comprehensive engagement with public and community stakeholders to facilitate the project's success," the report advises.

The report called on the West Virginia Office of Energy to update state energy assurance and hazard mitigation planning with microgrids for resilience strategies outlined in this study, pursue potential microgrid projects and related funding applied toward projects on or near mine lands, and pursue FEMA grant funding to conduct site-specific feasibility studies and build microgrids prioritized in the study.

The report also notes that the Inflation Reduction Act provided tax credit support for microgrid controllers and energy storage in addition to climate resiliency funding. West Virginia leaders can leverage those resources to implement microgrids and prioritize disadvantaged communities, the report observes.

The Department of Energy will hold a virtual workshop on the Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas program on Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m. ET and Wednesday from noon to 5 p.m. ET. Registration for the workshop is available through a link at

The workshop will give a detailed overview of the program, gather feedback from stakeholders and offer a forum for stakeholder networking, the Department of Energy said. The workshop will be geared toward local governments, utilities, private-sector project developers, and others in rural and remote communities.

© 2022 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.