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Reliable and Energy Efficient: Research Project Aims to Upgrade the Electric Grid

The University of Toledo has joined a research project from the U.S. Department of Energy that could change how the national electric grid operates in the future.

(TNS) — The University of Toledo has joined a leading-edge research project from the U.S. Department of Energy that is examining how complex software can work with building infrastructure and alternative energy sources to create a more reliable and efficient energy grid.

If successful, the findings could help color how our national electric grid operates in the future.

Today’s grid is relatively simple. Power companies anticipate how much demand there’s likely to be, match their production to it, and push out that electricity to homes and businesses.

But experts say that model is poised to become far more complex as power needs change, additional alternative energy-generation comes online, and power storage becomes more feasible.

“The development and market penetration of those technologies is happening a lot faster than we’ve seen in the past. Addressing the impact of that deployment is really important for the Department of Energy,” said Dennis Stiles, the Buildings Program manager at the department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“There’s a lot of benefits to the building owners and occupants of having that kind of technology, but we also need to mitigate the impact that has on the local grid,” he said.

The work that is under way at UT, researchers said, is an early step toward addressing those issues.

“We’re teed up for them to implement their software best at this particular location,” said Michael Green, the director of UT’s energy management. “As crazy as it sounds, the foresight of having the campus developed this way, the energy innovation, it was ready for this kind of a project.”

The project pairs the university’s existing smart-building technology and one megawatt of solar generation capability on the Scott Park campus with open-source software that was created by the U.S. Department of Energy. UT has been doing research regarding solar energy for a long time, dating back to the late Harold McMaster, who had had research facilities there supporting the company he founded that is now First Solar Inc.

That software, called Volttron, effectively taps into the grid to monitor energy prices, generation, and demand in real time.

Armed with that information, Volttron can control whether the buildings draw power from the grid, from UT’s solar array, or from a battery that will be installed on the Scott Park campus to collect excess power from the solar array. It also will line up the timing of energy usage — think heating and cooling — to put the lowest strain on the grid.

“What we’re trying to do here is provide flexibly to the grid and enhance grid reliability,” Mr. Stiles said. “We’re also trying to make buildings more efficient and have lower costs to operate, and we’re trying to facilitate the more distributed energy generation outside the control of the utilities.”

While the Department of Energy has been working with the Volttron software for several years now and has conducted a number of simulations, the projects at UT and Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, are the first time the program has been tested in the real world.

“It’s going to look at the reliably of that infrastructure and it’s going to monitor that grid,” Mr. Green said. “The nice thing about our campus, this particular campus is on a microgrid that can simulate that. They can do that real world on our campus right now.”

UT is working with Case Western as well as the NASA Glenn Research Center on the project, which has received $1 million in funding from U.S. Department of Energy through the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The project, initially funded for 15 months, is in its early stages. Alexis Abramson, director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western, said the focus right now is getting devices within buildings talking to each other and getting the batteries hooked up.

From there, they’ll be able to begin collecting data.

“What we’re doing is kind of preparing these campuses to be these living labs for these concepts,” Ms. Abramson said.

The research also caught the interest of a number of industrial companies, including Johnson Controls Inc., which will make the batteries that are being used at Case and UT.

Also joining on was Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron utility that supplies power to this part of the state through Toledo Edison.

Mark Durbin, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the company is eager to assess how the software controls might affect its distribution grid.

“With some customers using distributed generation — such as on-site wind turbines, solar panels, or battery storage — these types of research projects take on added significance when it comes to analyzing energy savings, cost reductions, and maintaining overall system reliability,” Mr. Durbin said.

One of the key challenges for the electric industry is that generation needs to be matched to load.

When generation is centralized and produced by burning fuels, that’s relatively easy. But as generation becomes more spread out and more reliant on environmental factors such as the sun and wind, that becomes more complex.

That, experts say, is one reason the research being done at UT and Case is so intriguing.

“This project is about buildings being able to provide flexibility.

“At the heart of it, that’s what this is. Can buildings provide flexibility, rather than always using generation as the way can we change the load to match things up,” said Mark McGranaghan, the vice president of power delivery and utilization for the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute.

©2017 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.