Microgrid consists of built-in safeguards » Albuquerque Journal


Gary Oppedahl, Vice President New Technologies at Emera Technologies, shows the central control panels for microgrid commands that continuously provide real-time data from the BlockEnergy Smart Platform at Kirtland Air Force Base. (Jim Thompson / Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – A new neighborhood-level solar-powered microgrid developed by Emera Technologies LLC could have saved vulnerable communities in California from blackouts during this summer’s intense heat and raging wildfires if installed.

The microgrid, known as BlockEnergy Smart Platform, is intended to supply communities with up to 50 houses around the clock with electricity from solar modules on the roof, which are backed up by battery storage and operated entirely by an automated intelligent control system that also keeps the light in the neighborhood under adverse conditions. The system contains built-in safety precautions to supply the entire community with electricity – even if solar panels or battery storage in one or more houses or in installations in the vicinity fail.

And if the surrounding communities lose power, the blackout will not affect BlockEnergy-connected neighborhoods as the microgrid operates independently of broader commercial utility grids, said Gary Oppedahl, vice president of emerging technologies for the company.

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“If the power grid fails, the entire microgrid remains in operation,” said Oppedahl. “And if a house in the microgrid runs out of power, for example due to the battery storage being exhausted, it remains online via connections to the rest of the system. It is absolutely resilient. “

In the event of a devastating fire that could shut down power generation systems or cut transmission lines through the forest, a BlockEnergy-connected neighborhood would not lose power because the self-contained system does not depend on that infrastructure to operate, Oppedahl said.

These cables on the roof of a laundry in the Family Camp Park at Kirtland Air Force Base connect the building to the BlockEnergy Smart Platform microgrid from Emera Technologies.

Offering renewable energy generation with this reliability and resilience gave the company the first push to pursue the microgrid system, said Rob Bennett, CEO of Emera Technologies.

“States, communities, and power customers want more renewable energy and reliable electrical systems, especially in California and the East Coast, where there are reliability issues due to weather,” said Bennett. “So we’ve created a system that offers more renewable energy generation at the local level with built-in ability to keep the lights on.”

The company used standard technology to create the BlockEnergy platform. This includes existing solar and battery storage systems as well as intelligent, automated controls that monitor everything in real time and immediately take measures to maintain the flow of electrons despite technical problems, weather changes or other environmental problems.

“We took advantage of the technology available and put everything together in innovative ways,” said Bennett.

Boxes, houses, loops

Under the BlockEnergy platform, every single house or every single installation in the microgrid has its own solar modules and battery storage as well as a “BlockBox” which contains all the electronics and intelligent controls for operating the system. The BlockBox converts direct current (DC) from solar modules into alternating current (AC) for home use. It also monitors power consumption, seamlessly switches the flow of electricity back and forth between the solar panels and battery storage, and automatically switches the devices at home on and off depending on the conditions.

As a result, each house is set up so that it can be operated independently as a single unit or as a “block home,” said Oppedahl.

At the same time, every house in the system is interconnected so that all houses in the microgrid can share everything among themselves. Taken together, these connected houses form a “BlockLoop”.

Next, the BlockLoop is connected to a central BlockBox at community level with a separate backup battery storage system in order to monitor the entire system as a command center. This focal point, known as the BlockEnergy Park, also acts as a gateway connection to commercial utility networks, so the BlockLoop microgrid sends excess electricity generated internally by the community to another location for use by a utility company can, while a utility company can also send power from outside power plants back to the microgrid when needed.

It’s a modular system where everything is connected, Bennett said.

“The system moves energy across the microgrid to optimize power consumption,” said Bennett.

All solar modules and battery storage in the microgrid are effectively shared by the entire community, so the system can efficiently distribute power where, when and how it is needed to keep the entire network running without interruption.

“Everything is shared back and forth. So if a house’s solar system fails, it will continue to be fed by the rest of the microgrid,” said Oppedahl. “With individual solar systems in private households, you can no longer share electricity with your neighbors. Only on an interconnected microgrid like this can you do this to balance the entire load for the entire community. “

The intelligent platform uses artificial intelligence to monitor and control things and offers automated real-time responses to ensure that everything runs smoothly. System-wide controls are located in the BlockEnergy Park, where details on the generation of solar modules, battery storage and total power consumption in private households and via individual devices are immediately forwarded to the control center without interruption, so that the system can react to problems in real time.

“The operations center processes data second by second, watt by watt, to know what is happening at a given point in time,” said Oppedahl. “This data enables him to turn things off and turn things on when it’s most optimal.”

Intelligent monitoring

This intelligent platform has other advantages as well. By continuously monitoring power generation and consumption, it is possible, for example, to determine when devices such as air conditioners or refrigerators need to be serviced, so that consumers can correct these problems in good time and not by means of preset, uniform schedules.

The Emera microgrid at Kirtland Air Force Base includes this charging station for electric vehicles. The one on the left delivers solar generated direct current from the panels to the vehicles and the one on the right converts the solar direct current into alternating current and then back into direct current again. (Jim Thompson / Albuquerque Journal)

“Devices have energy signatures so you can tell when an air conditioner needs performance-based preventive service, such as consuming an additional 17% electricity in a given month,” said Oppedahl. “This is shown on the plant control card.”

Because the entire microgrid is designed to build, own, and operate a utility company with no upfront cost to homeowners, the entire system becomes a utility company with consumers paying a monthly electricity bill.

“Instead of individuals assuming all the costs and burdens for setting up solar systems on the roof, the energy supplier takes over this,” said Oppedahl. “It offers secure energy as a service with renewable energies, resilience, controls and real-time data.”

In addition, the system operates entirely on direct current, converting the electricity to alternating current only when it flows into households and when electricity is sent back and forth over the central gateway link that connects the microgrid to a utility’s commercial network. There are some great advantages to this.

It lays the foundation for the delivery of DC power for future power electronics such as charging stations for electric vehicles, Bennett said. It also prepares the system for the exploratory efforts of the industry to supply households and appliances with direct current, potentially avoiding losses from converting direct current to alternating current in order to achieve greater efficiency in utility networks.

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