Preaching the gospel of microgrids and battery storage from a pulpit on the Eastern Shore
As part of Maryland Matters’ ongoing “Climate Calling” series, we will feature occasional profiles of green energy entrepreneurs in Maryland.
Geoff Oxnam was sitting on the patio of his favorite coffee shop in Easton the other day, talking about his work in Hawaii, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts and dozens of other states. When he needs to confer with one of his colleagues, all of whom work remotely, they’re in Seattle, Norway, Mumbai and other far-flung corners of the world.
But make no mistake: The work Oxnam does is rooted in Easton and informed by his 13 years as an executive with the Eastern Shore town’s unique municipal utility. Oxnam, 53, is the CEO of American Microgrid Solutions LLC, a young company that advises real estate developers, nonprofits, and community organizations on how to set up solar arrays, resilience hubs, microgrids and other renewable energy installations that are able to withstand the disasters of the present — and future.
“We’ve been blessed that the phone’s been ringing ever since we started,” Oxnam said. “We know that’s not always going to be the case.”
By virtue of his work, and his volunteer time as board chair of the Maryland Clean Energy Center and as a member of the advisory board of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute, Oxnam has become one of state’s leading advocates for clean energy technology, especially battery storage. And as an entrepreneur, he’s able to use his first-hand experience to spread the gospel and the technology.
Oxnam launched his company seven years ago after falling into the electricity generation business quite by accident when he became communications director for municipally owned Easton Utilities, which provides electricity, gas, telecommunications, water, and wastewater treatment services to the town’s 17,000 residents. He rose to become the utility’s vice president of operations — and still never imagined he would become so thoroughly steeped in the world of power grids, solar arrays and transmission regulation.
“We’re 25 years into a two-year plan,” Oxnam likes to say.
In fairly short order, American Microgrid Solutions has grown to serve clients in about 30 states, advising them on how to set up renewable energy installations and storage facilities on their properties or how to establish resilience hubs in their communities — and how to finance and manage them.
“They’re really able to inspire big thinking,” said Christina McPike, director for energy and sustainability at WinnCompanies, a real estate development and management company based in Massachusetts, who has worked with Oxnam.
Every project has a backstory, and reveals something about the challenges of putting clean energy technologies into wide use. They also say something about the state of the electric utility game in an era when natural disasters are becoming more commonplace.
“The American power grid is a marvel of engineering,” Oxnam said. “If you think of the top five things that built the American economy, the grid is one of them. But the technology ages, the components age. What we’re trying to do is build the next generation of architecture that may look different from what we have today.”
‘I was looking at the architecture of infrastructure’
Oxnam’s own journey in some ways reflects the changes and growth in the business of renewables.
He’s a former journalist, publicist and devoted environmentalist who came to Maryland to follow his heart. He was working at a magazine in Rhode Island when he was introduced to his future wife, a Baltimore native, at a social gathering.
“We knew from the hour we met that we were going to get married,” he recalled.
Eventually, Oxnam indulged his passion for the environment by working at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, where he was communications director for a handful of years. When he and his wife discovered the challenges of finding affordable, kid-friendly Annapolis real estate, they decided to relocate, temporarily, over the Bay Bridge in Easton, so they could start a family. That was 25 years ago.
Within a few years, Oxnam landed the communications job at the local utility. It was a life-altering experience.
“Working at Easton Utilities was the best hands-on graduate school in infrastructure operations I could ever have wanted,” he said. At some point, Oxnam said, his bosses told him, “Feel free to figure out how it works and what you want to do about it.”
The publicly owned utility has an atypical management structure and an exemplary record. The mayor and town council appoint three commissioners who oversee operations, and the utility’s president and CEO, Hugh Grunden, is a local guy and company lifer who has run the operation for almost 30 years. Customer service is at a premium, and power outages in the town are rare.
“There’s been so much effort put into preventive maintenance,” Oxnam said. “There’s such a high motivation for excellence in operations. You don’t have a conflict between shareholders and ratepayers. There’s a lot of local pride in it. You can see it, you can touch it. You know the people who are affected by it, so you want to do your very best to make sure the system is operating and functioning.”
Like a standard utility, Easton gets its electric power from the PJM grid, which serves 13 states and the District of Columbia. But the town also has set up a substantial backup microgrid that stores energy, designed to power the entire community for seven to 10 days if the main power source is out of service.
“If there’s a big outage like the East Coast blackout, this is the only place where you’ll be able to use the ATM or get a burger,” Oxnam said.
That vital and unusually resilient backup got Oxnam thinking about the future of modern energy storage.
“Easton has a risk management strategy that’s really diverse,” he said. “While I was there, I was looking at the architecture of infrastructure.”
‘They really helped us see the potential‘
So what does American Microgrid Solutions do? It offers an array of services, geared to nonprofits, government agencies and private entities. They may want to convert their power supply to renewable energy. They may want to set up a large-scale energy storage unit. They may want to establish a resilience hub that becomes a gathering place in a community, offering emergency power along with many other necessities during a crisis. As Oxnam puts it, the clients are usually looking for “savings, sustainability or security” — or a combination of the three.
“We’re a mission-driven company focused on strengthening communities,” he said. “And we believe we can strengthen communities best by designing systems that give them more control.”
Many of the company’s clients are small, community-based health centers that don’t have the budget or infrastructure of major medical facilities but are still trying to set up more climate-friendly and reliable power sources, Oxnam said.
American Microgrid Systems will visit a site to see about the feasibility of installing renewable energy systems, a microgrid or battery storage. It will discuss the practical challenges behind operating a system. It will match clients with contractors. And it will make cost estimates and outline financing options.
“Sometimes the financial engineering is more difficult than the actual engineering,” Oxnam said. He calls the services his company offers “soup to nuts management.” Often enough, the advice and services cover present needs but also look to the future.
Consider three projects that American Microgrid Systems currently spotlights on its website. One is a solar installation that the company arranged at the U.S. Geological Service Water Science Center in Catonsville. The government water testing facility, is the first tenant in a tech park just outside the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus, and the solar project includes analysis of whether solar will also be feasible in other buildings when more tenants arrive.
Another American Microgrid Systems project is at a housing redevelopment project in the Barry Farm neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C. The company is helping the developer set up a battery storage facility and discussing the possibility of putting a community resiliency center in the heart of the development.
In Hawaii, the company is working with the Maui County government to plan a network of resilience hubs throughout the island — and dealing with the challenges of having to provide back-up renewable power distribution to remote areas that are isolated from population centers (Oxnam laments that when it came time for an American Microgrid staffer to spend a month recently in Maui working on the project, he didn’t get to go).
McPike said WinnCompanies hired American Microgrid Systems after receiving a grant to study the possibility of installing battery storage facilities at six housing developments they own in the Northeast. The discussion also included the potential for integrating battery storage, solar arrays, electric vehicle charging stations and controlled thermostats.
“They really helped us see the potential and the value-add and the complexity of what you do after the conceptual analysis is complete,” McPike said.
Even for a company that is already operating solar panels on rooftops at apartment complexes in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and D.C., the prospect of a more complex, interconnected system of renewables “is interesting, exciting and a little daunting,” she said. But the company believes Oxnam’s firm is able to help navigate the financial and regulatory challenges.
“AMS is filling a knowledge void,” McPike said.
Oxnam and his colleagues have become such experts that they have collaborated with Kristin Baja, a former climate and resilience planner with the City of Baltimore and now a leader with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, publishing guidebooks and other how-to materials about resilience hubs.
“We literally co-wrote the book,” he says.