What happens when a power company and a university get together? They build a microgrid

Wed, 2018-08-29 18:20 -- Doug Peeples

At one time a collaboration between an electric company and a university may have seemed strange. But the increasingly complex energy landscape and the evolving technologies it entails have drawn all manner of stakeholders to form partnerships to accomplish what they couldn't have achieved on their own. — Doug Peeples

Georgia Power and Georgia Tech expect to spend between $10-$15 million to build a research microgrid on the university campus in Atlanta. And both partners, surrounding communities and others could benefit substantially.

"The microgrid is a solution that is very appealing but not entirely understood. We see this as an opportunity to make a quantum leap in understanding," Santiago Grijalva of Georgia Tech told Microgrid Knowledge. Grijalva is director of the university's Advanced Computational Electricity Systems Laboratory.

For Georgia Tech, the research microgrid will give students the opportunity to collect data on everything from its components and how they work together to related business models and energy economics. The goal is to come up with replicable models utilities could use to better serve their customers.

The microgrid, which is owned by Georgia Power, also will provide service for a number of buildings on the university campus.

What do microgrids actually do?
A microgrid is a locally controlled system that consists of an energy source such and wind or solar power, controllers, energy storage which also can regulate voltage and power quality and a connection to the primary electric grid. They typically can operate in parallel with the primary electric grid or disconnect from it and operate independently as a stand-alone system. Businesses and industries use them in part to shave peak power costs, and they can provide power for remote areas with unreliable or no primary grid service. Think of microgrids as miniature electric grids to get a better idea of why and how they're used in business and school campuses, hospitals, data centers and other locations for emergency power backup in the event of a power outage on the primary grid.

Grijalva explained that the partners are encouraging vendors to join the project to test their products. Other equipment will be bought and some of it donated. "The controllers will be fairly advanced so that they can be swapped. More than one vendor will be selected, and more than one system will be installed and tested."

Good timing
This week Navigant Research released a market forecast that said the global microgrid market is anticipated to reach $30.9 billion in 2027. While market forecasts vary in terms of dollars and time frames, the increase in market value over the next few or several years appears to be a consensus. For comparison, the market value so far for 2018 is estimated by some sources about $22 billion. Many energy industry observers expect microgrid deployments to pick up substantially in the U.S. over the next few years.

The Georgia Power-Georgia Tech microgrid will include a micro-turbine, energy storage and a fuel cell — with EV chargers and solar panels to be added later. Grijalva said Georgia Tech also wants to incorporate a digital simulator that would provide finely detailed information about the microgrid's operations.

"We want the students to be able to see the system, to have access to the historical data bases, and use the data in a variety of simulations and experiments."

For its part Georgia Power sees the microgrid as an opportunity to conduct an up close assessment "to evaluate how microgrids can be integrated and operated seamlessly as a grid asset," company spokesman Jacob Hawkins said. He added that the microgrid would give the utility an opportunity to "plug and play new technologies as they are developed" and to get a better understanding of what it would take to deploy them in an urban area.

Southern Company, Georgia Power's parent company, has a demonstrated interest in microgrids. It bought microgrid company PowerSecure for $431 million in 2016.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.