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Kirtland AFB project tests a new microgrid system for providing power to homes

By KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: October 5, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — In the near future, neighborhoods across the country could be converted into self-sustaining, renewable, electric-generating zones that reliably supply power around the clock to all local residents independently from regional electric grids.

That’s the vision of Emera Technologies Inc., which is now testing a new microgrid system in a pilot project at Kirtland Air Force Base, where rooftop solar panels connected to battery storage and cutting-edge automated controls have supplied 250 kilowatts of renewable electricity 24/7 to a row of base houses and other installations since last December.

The Kirtland Resiliency Project offers a real-world glimpse into what Emera calls BlockEnergy, where dozens of houses and community installations are connected together in a solar-based, neighborhood-level grid – built and managed by local utilities at no cost to consumers – to provide reliable and resilient renewable energy that meets all local needs. Emera has built the system as plug-and-play technology that utilities can easily install in individual neighborhoods in a modular fashion across the country, allowing more houses and installations to be connected up as neighborhoods grow.

And as surrounding communities set up their own grids, neighboring BlockEnergy zones can be interconnected to one another to slowly build entire communities and regions into independent, regional-level generating platforms that run autonomously from the centralized generating plants that supply electricity to consumers today.

Kirtland officials are gung-ho about the technology, which could provide the kind of generating resiliency the military is seeking to power up bases and installations around the world with self-sustaining electric systems, said Col. David S. Miller, U.S. Air Force commander for the 377th Air Base Wing at Kirtland.

“We are looking at sustaining infrastructure and ensuring mission readiness in a way that is safe, secure, reliable, and cost-effective,” Miller said in an Emera news release announcing the new technology. “The Emera project is right in line with what we are trying to do.”

The pilot project – created in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Emera – provides a testbed for potential, future deployment of the microgrid system at Kirtland, and possibly elsewhere, Miller told the Journal.

“Energy resiliency is key to mission effectiveness,” Miller said in an email to the Journal. “… We’re looking forward to the learnings that we will achieve with this emerging technology and the prospect of the future development of an integrated smart system that meets the needs of Kirtland’s vital missions.”

Localizing the grid

For Emera, the project is the first step toward commercial deployment of its new BlockEnergy Smart Platform, which the company plans to unveil publicly for the first time Oct. 21-22 during the North America Smart Energy Week, an annual renewable energy industry conference and trade show, said Emera Technologies CEO Rob Bennett.

The system could offer utilities nationwide and beyond the opportunity to harness solar power for the first time through local community platforms that generate and distribute renewable electricity right where it’s needed – and which can also give back excess electricity to the broader grid as needed, Bennett said. That could help utilities meet emerging renewable mandates and energy decarbonation goals in a new, more efficient way while providing consumers access to solar electricity with no out-of-pocket costs to them.

The goal is to accelerate renewable deployment by leveraging utility capability to set up innovative community systems that individual consumers and neighborhoods couldn’t build on their own.

“In this case, unlike today’s independent solar homeowners, customers will get power built by the utility – just like anyone else on the grid today – with no capital obligations on their part or maintenance costs,” Bennett told the Journal. “It’s a system where all customer needs are taken care of. They don’t have to worry about anything, and they benefit from it.”

That turns the BlockEnergy platform into an asset for the utility, eliminating the challenges utilities face today when integrating individual, home-based solar systems into the grid, said Gary Oppedahl, the company’s vice president for emerging technologies.

Standalone issues

Individual systems – referred to as “distributed energy,” where electricity is generated directly where it’s consumed – create problems, because a solar-powered home must still be connected to the broader grid for the utility to supply power at nighttime, or on overcast days when solar panels produce less electricity. That creates a patchwork of individual systems that can be difficult for utilities to harmonize with the centralized grid.

And it can drive up costs for non-solar consumers, because the utility continues to maintain a 24/7 supply of electricity through centralized power plants without fully recovering the costs from consumers with solar systems. Solar homeowners become part-time utility users who only pay for electricity they consume on off hours, leaving non-solar consumers to pick up lost costs through higher rates on their bills, Oppedahl said.

Those issues have become highly controversial as the individual solar market has gained momentum across the country. Solar advocates say utilities do benefit, because excess electricity produced on sunny days is sent back to the grid for general consumption. But utilities say that forces them to take electricity they often don’t need without allowing them to recover the basic costs for operating centralized systems.

In addition, lower income consumers are often excluded from the solar market because of the costs for buying rooftop systems. And those who can afford it must take charge of maintaining their systems at their own expense, potentially driving up costs when systems fail or deteriorate over time.

By providing utility-owned and operated microgrids for groups of consumers at the neighborhood level, Emera Technologies believes it can offer a much more efficient alternative, deploying collectively-used distributed energy systems at a much faster rate than individual ones, Oppedahl said.

“Distributed energy resources are not being implemented at the pace and scale needed as we move to decarbonize generation, because it’s basically being sold and deployed on a door-to-door basis,” Oppedahl said. “In contrast, (BlockEnergy technology) allows utilities to build out utility-scale distributed energy one neighborhood at a time, and one community at a time, rather than through door-to-door deployment, and it allows the utilities to get directly involved in the transition.”

Where to from here

Supporting utilities with new, innovative systems is the central focus of Emera Technologies, which launched in 2018 as a subsidiary of Emera Inc., a publicly traded utility company with $34 billion in assets. Emera, which owns the New Mexico Gas Co., operates electric generation and manages transmission and distribution systems for both electricity and natural gas in Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean.

It plans to first deploy the BlockEnergy Smart Platform in new housing construction projects across the U.S., working with home builders and local utilities to set up renewable microgrids as an integral part of neighborhood infrastructure, particularly in Sunbelt states. It’s already working with builders and utilities on its first commercial projects in Florida and California.

That could be especially beneficial in California, where regulatory changes now mandate that new houses be built with solar systems, Bennett said.

Retrofitting homes in existing neighborhoods could happen in the future, as more utilities shut down aging coal and other fossil fuel plants to replace them with renewable resources. If utilities were to retrofit old neighborhoods that currently receive power through the existing grid, it would duplicate electric supplies, potentially driving costs up for consumers and making it harder for utilities to recover their investments in power plants.

“That will be possible in the future, but we’re not pursuing that market now, because retrofitting would eliminate the value of existing systems and create stranded assets for utilities,” Bennett said. “If it’s a new community without assets, a utility could invest instead in (BlockEnergy) for the new development. … In that case, utilities may want to adopt a modular, incremental system like this rather than construct more big, new power plants.”

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