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

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Even so, microgrids are getting a hearing nationally as well as along the stricken East Coast. The US power grid received a D-plus grade from the American Council of Civil Engineers in 2009. Power outages averaged 120 minutes per customer last year and were growing, Department of Energy and industry data show.

"This new storm [hurricane Sandy] will undoubtedly accelerate interest in developing microgrids," says Peter Asmus, a senior analyst for Pike Research, a market research firm that tracks microgrid development.

Minutes after trees fell on utility lines two weeks ago, knocking out power to Princeton, the university's energy manager, Ted Borer, began checking the school's big natural gas-fired turbine generator. Serving 12,000 students and faculty, the generator routinely supplies all the school's heat and hot water and half its electricity – the rest usually coming from the local utility.

After a few minutes in the dark, Mr. Borer flipped switches that restored power to much of the campus including one dining hall, the dormitories, and all the critical lab experiments. Some classrooms and administration buildings remained dark. But for nearly two days the campus was on its own power, which allowed some students to begin organizing efforts to help others in the surrounding city, which was still in the dark.

"We designed it so the electrical system for the campus could become its own island in an emergency," Borer says. "It cost more to do that. But I'm sure glad we did."

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