Microgrids Going Mainstream?

PUBLISHED ON Oct 01, 2013

Thomas Edison’s original vision of a power grid consisted of a network of ubiquitous and independent DC power generation. Then along came the lower cost‐per‐kilowatt of Tesla and Westinghouse’s centralized AC grid, and the distributed model all but disappeared. Microgrids, the modern inheritors of Edison’s distributed generation topology, remained a “fringe” power application for decades, seeing use primarily on islands, military bases, and isolated towns. Driven by lower relative costs, higher levels of automation, and a growing awareness of the security and social impacts of cascading blackouts in policy circles, microgrids are experiencing resurgent growth and attention. Could this be the start of a pendulum swing back to the distributed, autonomous power model of Edison?

Microgrids are distributed generation systems designed to operate as self‐contained local electrical power grids with a combination of renewable and traditional sources and managed loads. By localizing power generation, energy yield from source fuels is greatly improved, and the threat of blackout is greatly reduced as they can operate independently as “islands” when there is an outage on the main grid. Their higher cost‐per‐kilowatt and the stability needs of the larger utility have limited their adoption in mainland grids.

NovaTech Automation believes in supporting forward thinking research with the potential to improve power reliability, security, and sustainability. Donated Orion and Bitronics products are operating in engineering, cyber security, and Smart Grid research projects at PennState University, North Carolina State University, and Colorado State University. Most recently, a donation of an OrionLX and two Bitronics M872 Event recorders was made to the University of Wisconsin Madison (UW-Madison) campus microgrid initiative.

Home to the nation’s first solar energy lab and the only Department of Energy funded bioenergy research center on an academic campus, UW-Madison supports the efforts of hundreds of faculty, scientists and students working in energy. The Wisconsin Energy Institute (WEI), a part of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is the new home of the Center for Renewable Energy Systems (CRES). CRES’s technical director is Professor Thomas Jahns who is also the Co‐Director of Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium.

Professor Jahns has focused the labs systems efforts on a “microgrid” concept, which utilizes solid state power converters and switches to create a smaller, adaptive building block for grid power distribution, distributed generation, and integration of renewable energy. As part of this approach, a small microgrid is being constructed in a uniquely designed “high bay” lab within the WEI.

To further diversify the capability to test a large combination of electrical grid dynamic use cases, the instrumentation and control system is divided into a student/researcher experimental network and a utility demonstration network. NovaTech Automation equipment in the CRES will be utilized in the “utility demonstration network” to explore modern automation applications PRC‐002 compliant Distributed Disturbance Recording (DDR), power monitoring, and fault diagnostics.

One Bitronics M872 will monitor the connection point with a utility, with the other being used as a “floater” diagnostic instrument in the lab, and the OrionLX will initially connect to a PLC safety system. Research for applications will incorporate 61131 programming in the Orion and the GOOSE messaging/Distributed Event Recording functions of the 70 Series.

“These equipment donations will expend the CRES Lab and the Wisconsin Energy Institute’s experimental capabilities and provide a state‐of‐the‐art measurement and validation system,” notes Bruce Beihoff, Technical Director of Industry Programs. “We have a great partner in NovaTech Automation for research, talent development, and industry expertise.”