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Through small-scale test runs in Illinois, Ameren experiments with self-sufficient microgrid

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Tuesday, September 26, 2017  |  Article  |  By Bryce Gray

Energy, Alternative Energy (93) , Utilities (94)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. • When Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast in 2012, Princeton University was among the few oases spared from the power outages that blanketed the region.

It wasn’t a result of luck amid the crippling storm. It was technology that enabled the campus to cut itself off from the main power grid and convert to its own microgrid for self-sufficiency.

Since then, microgrids have flexed their muscle during other prominent disasters, including the recent hurricanes that have ravaged swaths of the southern United States. In reports from Hurricane Harvey, some groceries in Houston employed similar technology to keep electricity running while some Florida homes with solar panels and battery systems did the same during Hurricane Irma.

The resilience afforded by microgrids has captured attention even in areas shielded from hurricanes, such as Illinois — where the St. Louis-based utility, Ameren, is testing applications of the technology.

At its small research facility in Champaign, Ill., the company has established what it says is one of the world’s only customer-connected microgrids that can operate at utility-scale voltages, using power from a single wind turbine and an array of several hundred solar panels on site.

Last month, Ameren was able to successfully “island” its facility at the site, transitioning from the broader grid to its own mix of local renewable energy for a 24-hour period. Later this year, Ameren intends to do a similar test for all of the 192 residential and commercial customers connected to its microgrid.

The $5 million project completed in December was spurred by legislation in Illinois that provided incentives “to figure out what that next generation of utilities look like,” said Ron Pate, senior vice president of operations and technical services for Ameren Illinois.

“(Microgrids) are, in a sense, backup generation,” adds Tamer Rousan, an Ameren Illinois supervising engineer. “Legislators came out and said, ‘Why do we not have more?’”

But utilities and advocates of grid modernization are also excited about the potential opportunities presented by the technology.

That’s because it provides the ability to seamlessly toggle back and forth between power from the grid at large and power from independent, often renewable, energy sources — whether out of necessity, or by choice.

That feature has implications not just for system resilience in the face of outages, but also for better incorporating renewable energy into the grid. For instance, Ameren’s microgrid employs cutting-edge battery technology and natural gas generators to smooth out any periods of intermittency when its on-site solar or wind production tapers off.

Although a sizable majority of Ameren’s overall power generation is from coal, the utility is aware that the grid of the future — and even the present — requires learning more about how to store and deploy renewable energy and other distributed energy resources.

”A huge amount of (renewable) penetration is going to come our way,” Rousan said. “We need to prepare ourselves for this new way of operating the grid.”

Pate adds that steadily sinking costs of renewable energy mean that microgrids would enable the utility “to economically dispatch” renewable energy at times when it can cost-effectively be added to the grid, saving money for Ameren and customers.

He said wind and solar have not yet achieved overall cost parity with conventional fossil fuels that dominate the grid’s power supply, though that day is fast approaching.

“Those two axes are going to cross sooner rather than later,” Pate said. “This isn’t your father’s utility anymore. Things are changing and changing quickly.”

As a tour of the compound shows, Ameren’s microgrid is much more than a backup generator attached to a battery. Perhaps its key distinguishing feature is the ability to communicate automatically with its various components and with the broader grid to identify energy usage requirements in real time, optimally matching demand with production and storage on hand at a given moment.

The system has three primary settings.

The first and most common setting is to operate in parallel with the main electric grid, simply funneling solar and wind energy out to its customers as it becomes available. If those customers require additional power, it is drawn from the broader electrical grid.

The second setting occurs if Ameren’s operators want to proactively switch the system to “island mode” in anticipation of storms or other potential disruptions. That’s the scenario the company has been testing.

If an actual outage arises unexpectedly, the third setting kicks in, prompting the system to attempt reconnecting to the main grid for 60 seconds before turning to the microgrid as an emergency backup.

It remains to be seen how Ameren may eventually apply aspects of its Champaign microgrid to its vast distribution network in Illinois and Missouri. But despite that uncertain future, outside energy experts say the technology can offer valuable lessons about how to improve the grid, even if utility-run microgrids don’t someday get sprinkled throughout communities.

“It’s really about taking the grid and optimizing it to make it much more efficient and lower-cost,” said Ashok Gupta, a senior energy economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

He says not many places are likely to be equipped with self-sufficient microgrids. But all electricity users, he says, can benefit from the more fluid communication between customers and utilities — which are often unaware of outages unless customers call them — and from examining ways to better synchronize power supply and power demand.

“It’s a way to bring the customer into the equation,” Gupta said, noting that it’s important to learn more about how and when they use electricity. “It’ll help (utilities) minimize these peaks and valleys that make the system much more expensive.”