St. Elizabeths East campus
A microgrid planned for the St. Elizabeths East campus could offer reliable power for the new buildings planned there, if it's ever built. Credit: Alex Koma

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Some new energy infrastructure at the St. Elizabeths East campus could provide a reliable, resilient power source for the area’s new hospital, a 911 call center, and an array of other buildings there, all while saving the District millions of dollars. So why hasn’t it been built yet?

Local environmentalists have a theory: This “microgrid” pilot project could peeve Pepco, so D.C. officials are trying to kill it. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration insists that nothing of the sort is going on, of course, but there’s enough smoke around the issue to raise Loose Lips’ eyebrows.

Let’s start with the basics: What’s a microgrid, exactly? The shortest explanation is that it’s a power system that allows for on-site energy generation, rather than being tethered solely to an area’s central electrical grid. In the event of an outage, the microgrid can disconnect and rely on locally generated power, serving as an “island” of sorts.

Naturally, that sort of technology is particularly valuable for buildings that can’t afford to have the lights go out, like, say, a hospital. Accordingly, the District agreed to include a pilot program for a microgrid in its plans for the new St. E’s hospital with the aim of someday spreading the technology elsewhere around D.C.

Since that system could also help power the nearby Unified Communications Center, the city even managed to score a nearly $20 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the pilot off the ground. All that’s left is to bid out the project, now that the hospital’s construction is officially underway.

But that’s where the microgrid has gotten held up, drawing the attention of the Sierra Club’s D.C. chapter. Mark Rodeffer, the group’s political chair, testified during a Council hearing last week that he’s heard “some in the executive branch are working to thwart a microgrid at St. Elizabeths,” insinuating that Bowser’s deputies are deferring to Pepco on the issue. And he suspects that would have grave consequences for the new hospital, perhaps forcing the city to reallocate a full floor of space away from patient care to make room for more traditional diesel generators.

A spokesperson for the utility company wrote in a statement that Pepco supports the project and “is working closely with the District government…to develop a design to safely facilitate the microgrid at the site.” But microgrids tend to lessen energy demand overall, which utilities have generally regarded as a threat to their profits in other states that have considered the technology. Proponents of the project have suggested it could amount to millions in energy savings over the next decade, and reduce the need for Pepco to expand capacity at its substation serving the area.

“This microgrid may not be in the electric utility’s interest, but it is clearly in the public interest,” Rodeffer said during the Feb. 16 performance oversight hearing for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Rodeffer believes DMPED is using its position as the manager of the St. E’s campus redevelopment to delay the microgrid to death, “objecting to all proposed locations for the necessary equipment.” The FEMA grant is technically being managed by D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, but environmentalists fear DMPED’s meddling will jeopardize that federal money ever flowing to the District.

Rodeffer is light on hard evidence, of course, citing only unnamed sources within the Wilson Building. But this is hardly the first time the administration has been accused of being too cozy with the utility giant: Beverly Perry, Bowser’s senior adviser, was once a top lobbyist for the company.

And it is hard to deny that the project looks to have fallen off course, considering that Bowser’s own “Resilient D.C.” plan calls for the microgrid to be up and running on the campus by 2023. The city has yet to issue a request for proposals to find a company to manage the project, let alone start any work on it.

John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff and the head of DMPED, concedes that there have been delays in issuing that RFP, some of which have stemmed from his office. “With all the moving parts that are happening on the campus, we have to figure out where to site some of that critical infrastructure,” he says, making it no easy feat to find a place for the project.

As for the rest of the Sierra Club’s allegations, he says “I really don’t know what the accusation is” and “I’m not sure where it came from.”

“It’s moving forward, as far as I know,” Falcicchio says. “But it’s not like we’re just soliciting for, you know, building a building or something like that. It’s kind of intricate.”

Falcicchio says HSEMA Director Chris Rodriguez has also reassured him that the FEMA grant is not in any jeopardy of disappearing, contrary to Rodeffer’s assertions.

Environmentalists certainly hope he’s right, considering the huge benefits they believe are associated with the project. One of the consultants advising the District government on the project, Bracken Hendricks of the energy finance firm Urban Ingenuity, tallied up potential cost savings of well over $100 million over the next decade in a presentation to the city’s Commission on Climate Change and Resiliency last month.

He argued that the microgrid’s construction could save between $5 million and $10 million in reduced energy costs, as well as capital construction savings between $8 million and $12 million because it would “eliminate the need for a hospital energy plant” as well as “on-site boilers and chillers” and “diesel engines or storage tanks.” That lack of traditional power equipment is why Hendricks believes the hospital, the first new hospital facility built east of the Anacostia River in many years, can afford “an extra floor for additional patient rooms and services.”

In the long term, Hendricks also said that the microgrid could be expanded to serve up to 700 of the new homes being built on the campus, generating continued savings in energy costs and emissions reductions.

Such a change would “avoid the 100% leakage for current energy payments,” one bullet of his presentation noted.

“Dollars to Pepco leave the District,” he wrote of the utility, which is now controlled by the Chicago-based Exelon Corp.

This story has been updated with a statement from Pepco.