LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
After Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's electrical grid, American cities are looking for more reliable ways to get their power. And Pittsburgh is one of them. Researchers there are working on an energy technology called microgrids that could help provide a backup to the main power supply. Daniella Cheslow reports.
DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: The truck bay of Pitt Ohio company outside Pittsburgh is the flagship project of a microgrid experiment. Renewables power everything here from the LED lighting overhead to the electric forklifts. Gene Lutz drives one.
GENE LUTZ: You know, they usually last about six hours before they need to recharge.
CHESLOW: Jim Maug directs building maintenance. He says Pitt Ohio got tax incentives to install renewable energy. And the finances make sense.
JIM MAUG: The entire program for this was just about 325,000. We're anticipating about a seven to eight year return on investment.
CHESLOW: We visit the utility room where a ladder leads to the roof.
MAUG: Do you want to stick your head out and see the solar panels?
CHESLOW: All right.
MAUG: Will you pop that open for her (unintelligible)?
CHESLOW: I climb up and see 160 panels lying flat on the truck bay's white metal roof. There's a wind turbine out front, and it's all wired into a bank of batteries inside. Usually, power grids rely on a far-flung network. So you could be making toast using electricity from miles away.
A microgrid is a much smaller and independent power network. During a storm, even if the local power plant shuts down, the lights at this truck bay will probably stay on. Gregory Reed of the University of Pittsburgh designed this microgrid - much of it manufactured right here.
GREGORY REED: This is really a first step in the direction that we want to take for larger-scale installations.
CHESLOW: The University's engineering school is working with the city and a local electric utility to build more microgrids. It's happening as Pittsburgh enjoys a renaissance. Tech companies have opened offices here in recent years. The young population is growing. And the city wants to keep these newcomers by updating infrastructure that, in some cases, hasn't been touched since the Golden Age of Steel. Reed imagines expanding what he's created here to cover bigger and bigger areas.
REED: Perhaps neighborhoods or a downtown area or a college campus or even an entire industrial park.
CHESLOW: A lot of places, from Alaska to Brooklyn, are experimenting with individual microgrids. But Reed's goal is to link several of them together to back each other up in an emergency.
REED: We'll just walk through here.
CHESLOW: He's turned this old school into a research lab to experiment with his ideas...
REED: We're going to go down the steps.
CHESLOW: ...Like this energy efficient form of air conditioning. Reed walks down to what used to be a swimming pool. In it now our big white storage tanks filled with ice.
REED: You make ice at night. You melt it during the day.
CHESLOW: And it's piped through the building to cool it down. Innovation like this is driving Pittsburgh's renaissance, and other cities are paying attention. A few weeks ago, a San Juan official called city hall here. She wanted advice on making Puerto Rico's grid more resilient. For NPR News, I'm Daniella Cheslow.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOARDS OF CANADA'S "ROYGBIV")
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