City News

Salem to build state’s first community microgrid

When an ice storm, heat wave, downed powerline or rogue squirrel causes a widespread outage on the power grid, people with a separate source – like a generator – are likely the only ones with the lights still on.

That’s because they have what is known as a microgrid.

“That generator, as long as it can operate independently of our grid and provide power to whatever you need power to, that is in and of itself a microgrid,” said John Farmer, spokesman for Portland General Electric.

While a microgrid will typically serve a single building or organization, southeast Salem is set to build the first “community microgrid” in the state, which follows the same idea on a slightly larger scale.

“The thing that differentiates this, by using the term community microgrid, is because it’s connected to (PGE’s) distribution system, but it can serve multiple customers,” Farmer said. 

The project, a collaboration between the city of Salem and PGE, recently received a $1 million grant from the Oregon Department of Energy’s Community Renewable Energy Grant Program.

The microgrid will collect solar power at the new public works building at 1457 23rd St. SE, which is set to be completed in late 2023.

The energy will then be stored at PGE’s Salem Smart Power Center for emergency use, which will get an increase in storage capacity using the grant. 

During emergencies, the grid will be able to supply power to the city’s public works building, six apartment buildings, 34 homes, four government buildings and one business, according to the city.

“This is a really key way to ensure a resilient system,” Farmer said. “If you have a grid system that’s kind of rigid and inflexible, if you’ve only got one power panel here, only one wire here, you really create something that’s prone to fail. And we are going the total opposite direction of that.”

When the microgrid is online, it will be able to power essentials like refrigerators or heating in connected buildings as PGE repairs the main grid. 

The project is part of the city’s Climate Action Plan, which was finalized in February.

A goal of the plan is to develop a resilient power grid that can power critical infrastructure, like hospitals, during increasingly common severe weather, said Trevor Smith, public works department spokesman.

“We are entering a time where summers are getting longer. The heat dome is another good example of when there was a prolonged period of exceptionally hot weather,” Smith said. “And all those things, the microgrids could be used to help keep the power generation going during an unplanned power event.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.