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Lessons from Sandy: how one community in storm's path kept lights on

President Obama toured Sandy-hit areas Thursday, even as some communities still wait for power. Princeton University avoided power outages by using a 'microgrid' – and the idea is spreading.

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President Obama, accompanied by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, hugs Debbie Ingenito Thursday on Staten Island's Cedar Grove Avenue, a street significantly impacted by hurricane Sandy.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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President Obama on Thursday visited areas recovering from hurricane Sandy, which knocked out power to more than 8 million people. Power is finally coming back on for the last few in New York and New Jersey who have yet to regain it after the lights went out more than two weeks ago.

But lessons learned since darkness descended on central New Jersey in the wake of Sandy's wrecking winds include at least one tiny triumph: Princeton University's leafy campus stayed lit by tapping its own smaller version of the power grid – a "microgrid."

Microgrids were a hot topic among some policymakers even before Sandy hit. Backup generators may fail to start, run out of fuel, or break down. But microgrids like the one at Princeton act as a highly efficient, miniature version of the big power grid, operate 24/7, and tap into reliable natural gas-fired generators or perhaps wind turbines or even solar panels with battery storage.

Spurred by hurricane Irene and a bad snowstorm last October, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have had teams researching energy options to hedge against widespread grid outages from increasingly violent storms. Microgrids, they found, can supply power to critical shelters, hospitals, and city centers even if the grid is out for days on end. But they cost a lot to set up and legal barriers have slowed development.

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