By Chris Rotolo |MIDDLETOWN – In the wake of Super Storm Sandy much of the north side of the township went dark for at least two weeks, with others forced to live without power for nearly a month.It was a trying time, and with that in mind, last November the governing body moved toward establishing a more stable future by awarding a $150,000 grant from the State Board of Public Utilities (BPU) to Leidos Engineering for a 12-month feasibility study. The goal of the study is to test the viability of a waterfront location at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Leonardo for the installation of a community microgrid.So far, the study’s authors have found that a microgrid at Earle is technically feasible, but no further conclusive recommendations could be made until the final stages of the study are completed in December, said Paul Heitmann, an independent consultant contracted by Leidos, who spoke at a Sept. 27 public information session at the Middletown Township Public Library.Township administrator Anthony P. Mercantante said a microgrid could enhance the reliability of distribution, which would benefit public safety by eliminating the need for costly generators and diesel fuel to power critical community facilities.During a severe weather event, a community microgrid of this magnitude could be used to power critical community facilities like NWS Earle’s Waterfront Administration Area, the Township of Middletown Sewage Authority, NY Waterways Ferry Terminal, Middletown Public Works and CNG Fueling Facilities, Middletown’s municipal complex, Leonardo Elementary School, Bayview Elementary School, Bayshore Middle School, Monmouth County Highway Department, Middletown Fire Stations 3 (Belford Engine), 4 (Community, in Leonardo) and 7 (Belford Independent) and the Monmouth County Bayshore Outfall Authority.Traffic signals on coastal evacuation routes like State Route 35, 36 and Leonardville Road could also be powered by the microgrid, as well as the $110 million Port Monmouth Flood Wall, which is in Phase II of construction, and will serve as an important defense against severe flooding upon its completion, Mercantante said.In order to make a determination about the naval base site, Heitmann said the researchers will be seeking a better understanding of energy use at the facilities and roadways, the kinds of technologies at these sites – such as installed gas-powered generators – and what legislative hurdles, environmental restrictions and regulatory barriers must be overcome for such a project.In terms of these obstacles, Heitmann said the tide is turning in New Jersey thanks to a new regime led by Gov. Phil Murphy.“At least tentatively, overcoming all three of those is looking, to some degree, like a possibility,” Heitmann said in an Oct. 2 interview with The Two River Times. “Looking around the country, the biggest factor in overcoming these hurdles is the degree to which the utility is willing to cooperate and collaborate, rather than provide friction to slow the process in order to maintain their current business model.”In Middletown’s case, Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) is the service provider that would need to play ball, but Heitmann said it’s not a one-way street.“In areas where the utility has embraced the concept and realized that microgrids can be an asset for them, and where regulators work with utilities to ensure they stay whole on revenues while rewarding them for taking risks to transform their business model, these projects can work.”The Middletown effort is one of just 13 microgrid studies approved by the state and when it’s filed to the BPU in December, the study will be considered for further development. If selected, the project will be elevated from concept plan to design proposal and from that point actual cost estimates can be generated.“That’s when the big questions arise: Who’s funding this? How are we going to pay for it?” Mercantante said of the project, which he speculates will be a multimillion dollar endeavor. “Nobody knows that for sure. But it is well beyond the ability of any single town to finance.”Mercantante said the third phase of the process – funding the installation – is still very unclear. “It’s unknown whether the funding will come from private sector money, current utility companies or newly formed utility companies. It’s certainly not going to be the government.”This article was first published in the Oct. 4-10, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.