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UC San Diego Is Building the 'Motel 6' of Microgrids

May 19, 2014 - Bentham Paulos -

Byron Washom, master of UCSD’s microgrid, wants to create the nation’s most dynamic testing area for distributed energy.
Bentham Paulos

Attention, greentech entrepreneurs: Byron Washom wants to hear from you.

Washom, the director of strategic energy initiatives for the University of California, San Diego, has developed a microgrid platform for showcasing new distributed energy technologies. And it's the perfect place to test innovative technologies.

Because UCSD is state property, it is not subject to local ordinances and permitting requirements. Since it is not a utility, it is not subject to regulation by the state Public Utilities Commission. The campus has its own fire marshal and safety inspectors. “We can save companies two years,” said Washom. “That is critical in getting from the lab to market.”

Like many college campuses, UCSD has a campus power plant, built in 1962, that provides district heating and cooling. Washom and his colleagues have used it as a starting point for developing a 21st-century microgrid. The campus is “highly instrumented,” with a master controller from San Diego-based Power Analytics integrated with an OSIsoft data server monitoring 84,000 data streams per second.

The result is an innovation incubator that is host to a range of new energy technologies. While the university owns the microgrid system as a whole, many components are funded by grants or the vendors themselves. French solar company Soitec has provided two concentrating PV systems; ZBB Energy has installed a bank of zinc-bromide batteries; NRG is installing a fast EV charger; Maxwell Technologies will install a 28-kilowatt/15-minute supercapacitor; and BMW and RWE are testing a project to repurpose electric car batteries for grid storage.

“UCSD is a great place to showcase technology,” said Christopher Kuhl of ZBB Energy. “Our battery systems are intended to be in retail applications, so this was not quite in its intended setting. It shows what you can do with it, but doesn’t demonstrate commercial application.”

The microgrid itself might be a proof of concept, but it does power the campus of 45,000 people and 450 buildings. The system generates 92 percent of the campus’ electricity and 95 percent of the heating and cooling demand. Washom counts about $850,000 a month in savings compared to buying retail energy.

Rather than being an island, the microgrid is typically operated as a partner to the San Diego Gas & Electric system. During wildfires in 2007, SDG&E asked big customers for help in keeping the grid up. UCSD curtailed load, especially electric chillers, and cranked up generators, going from 4 megawatts of imports to 3 megawatts of exports in only 10 minutes. “They told us that 7 megawatt margin made the difference,” said Washom.

Recently, UCSD started installing synchrophasors, also known as phasor measurement units (PMUs), to get greater visibility and control of the system. It has nine installed so far and plans ten more. 

Washom expects the PMUs will be especially helpful in catching power outages, like the one that brought down the regional grid in 2011. “We could have had a 10-minute warning before the outage hit, but at the time, we had no way to monitor what was going on and to disconnect," he said.

UCSD remains SDG&E’s biggest demand response customer, regularly shedding 6 megawatts to 10 megawatts when called upon to do so. The campus has 4,000 thermostats under remote control, for example. 

Washom’s focus now is expanding storage capabilities. With funding from the state Self-Generation Incentive Program, UCSD has a request out for 2.7 megawatts and 5 megawatt-hours of battery storage, and will announce a winner soon.

Washom would also like to host storage systems for other winners of CEC grants and the recent PUC order on storage. “We are plug-and-play here,” he said. “We want to be the Motel 6 of storage.”

Another new storage play on campus is a collaboration with German carmaker BMW and energy conglomerate RWE, to test a “second life” for electric vehicle batteries. When the batteries lose about 20 percent of their charge capacity, they are no longer suitable for vehicle use. BMW and RWE have installed a shipping container filled with electronic controllers and worn-out car batteries on a circuit with a 330-kilowatt PV system. Washom said they’ll run the batteries “until rigor mortis sets in,” then do an autopsy to find the exact cause of death.

Electric vehicles are part of the campus plan as well. UCSD already has 56 EV chargers, the most of any university in the world. It has just installed a “high IQ” charger with Daimler and RWE, which will be able to control charging rates based on customers needs, grid needs and dynamic pricing.

Washom thinks this approach will help in dealing with the duck curve, by enabling charging during solar peaks. “I call it an EV happy hour.”

The university will soon be phasing in a new affinity plan with Daimler. Students, staff and faculty will be able to lease an electric smart car for only $115 a month, with a plan for on-campus charging.

While the microgrid is a wonderland of new technologies, the backbone of the system is still old-school fossil-fueled boilers and gas turbines. Whether it is cleaner than the grid is an open question.

Researchers are in the process of analyzing the system’s emissions profile to enable campus buildings to get LEED certification. A previous analysis found it to be cleaner than the San Diego power grid mix, but the state Renewable Electricity Standard has since driven down grid emissions.

And there may be limited potential to make the campus system cleaner. Solar has maxed out at about 3 megawatts of rooftop space. There are no PV canopies on parking lots because, with all the new construction on the rapidly growing campus, any parking lot is temporary, according to Washom.

Soitec has installed a pair of ground-mounted, two-axis-tracking concentrating PV systems, dubbed Little Brother and Big Brother, with Dad coming soon. Showcasing its product helped Soitec win a contract with SDG&E to deploy 150 megawatts in the Southern California desert. However, in April, project developer Tenaska announced it was switching to conventional PV rather than using the concentrating system. Soitec still has other contracts with SDG&E, and is planning to go ahead with a San Diego-area manufacturing operation.

Perhaps the best opportunity for more renewables comes from imported biogas. UCSD gets about 8 percent of its power from a 2.8-megawatt molten carbonate fuel cell under a PPA from Fuel Cell Energy. It runs on “directed” biogas, supplied by a the Point Loma wastewater treatment plant. The scrubbed biogas is injected at the plant and the university takes out pipeline gas for its fuel cell.

“Our fuel cell system sits on a pad the size of a tennis court,” Washom points out. “Any campus with a tennis court can have one of these.”

Tags: grid edge, microgrids, research and development, storage, ucsd


Updated: 2003/07/28