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Affordable Housing Project Challenges Microgrid Industry Assumptions

Jun 07, 2021

Guidehouse Insights

Rebecca Price of High Five Construction has built 800 buildings, worked with Donald Horton, the largest home builder in the US, and knows what she’s doing when it comes to designing and building homes. She is seeking to develop a one-of-a-kind green affordable housing microgrid located in Cibola County, New Mexico. Located in a federally designated opportunity zone, the microgrid would break through many long-standing industry assumptions about steep barriers to privately developed microgrids designed to support entire neighborhoods, which historically could only be developed by existing utilities. 

The planned 300-acre microgrid would rest at a 7,000 foot summit that falls within the service territory of the Continental Divide Electric Cooperative but lacks any current electricity, telecommunications, or water delivery infrastructure. It is also near the Navajo Nation Reservation, which once featured one of the largest coal plants in the US. Profiled in my book Reaping the Wind, the Mojave plant exported much of its power to California, while contributing to local air quality issues. The plant was shut down in 2019, another sign confirming the worldwide shift away from polluting centralized power plants to cleaner distributed energy resources

Facing the Challenges of Affordable Housing Microgrids

Price is aiming to create a new not-for-profit electric cooperative run by a homeowner’s association in which each building would have a vote. The microgrid would give away any excess energy generated back to the grid by her microgrid as a gesture to support this region’s efforts to boost local economic development. New Mexico is emerging as a hotspot for microgrid innovation, with Sandia National Laboratories being a major technology incubator. The region includes a focus on novel direct current applications such as those from Emera Technologies, which developed a pilot program in Albuquerque that is being rolled out more broadly.

“Sandia has pledged to me they’ll provide 180 hours of consulting time to help me take my patent pending prototypes to market,” pointed out Price. She is riding a wave Guidehouse Insights identified a few years ago about increased interested among real estate developers in microgrids, though most of those efforts were high end properties. Price is tackling a much more difficult challenge: a microgrid that supports affordable housing. Only two other similar but much less ambitious projects have been identified in the Guidehouse Insights' Microgrid Deployment Tracker in the US.

“The current parcel of land has amazing views. You can see all the way to Santa Fe,” she said. All told, the microgrid would support approximately 120 commercial buildings and 1,800 residential units. The buildings will be built in a factory as panelized structures. Price began investigating this new more modular approach to home construction in 2016. “It is a new form of building that will cut costs, while maximizing productivity,” she said, noting how traditional construction practices are challenged by wide temperature swings in in the high desert. Each building will be equipped with solar PV panels and a battery bank and feature passive solar features, a patented heating/cooling system, and a black/gray water system that Price has designed. 

Bold Thinking Breaking Barriers

The microgrid will be a hybrid system. Along with using each building’s solar plus storage systems, the microgrid will feature four 1 MW generators that will burn natural gas. Price says the local cooperative utility welcomes her project, which she estimates will cost $5 million. She has a letter of intent of a 500-acre plot valued at $500,000 and is actively seeking additional outside investors. It is this kind of bold thinking that is breaking down long-standing barriers to microgrids that support entire communities.