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Local microgrid starts on $27 million

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By John Bartlit

Projects in the mountain town of Los Alamos shape strong tools for tomorrow. New evidence is the $27 million in contracts among Los Alamos County, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the state of New Mexico and an alliance of 19 Japanese companies.
Jointly they will install and run parts of a “smart” electric grid, or microgrid, in town. “Smart” means it works on real-time data. Real-time data are touted in TV ads by techno-giants IBM and GE. Old-time data are data compiled yearly or daily that show where we were then, whereas “real-time data” are data gathered and applied each moment to steer things for the next moment.
Timely data let electric systems do more. Thus we see $27 million coming in for real-life testing of parts of a Smart Grid. If you know Smart Grids like the back of your hand, scan quickly to ‘B’ below.
Smart Grid means a local or regional electricity supply network that has ability to make smart choices. The chance to be smarter starts with multitudes of people casually flipping electric switches on in daytime hours and off all night long. The effects go far beyond what spring to mind. The nation’s power plants and transmission lines must be sized and built to send power enough for the highest demand of the year, which is typically on the afternoon of the hottest day (the most air conditioning). If sized for less, brownouts occur.
Yet the peak power is needed for parts of a day or two each year or two. The rest of the time power plants produce a fraction of the power they could and power lines carry a fraction of the load they could. Most days and weeks much capacity is unused, because no one wants it just then. If some power usage were shifted from the daytime to late night, existing equipment could meet more of the growing power needs. This saves building more capacity and lowers the cost per kilowatt-hour.   
Enter, the Smart Meter.
The smart electric meter works to shift power use to off-peak hours. Today’s “half-wit” meters measure electricity consumed each month. A Smart Meter reports how much is consumed and the time-segment when it was used.  
Presto chango. The price can be lowered for evening hours. Night rates would be lowest, as are night rates for cell phones. To lower their costs, more folks would start dishwashers and clothes dryers at bedtime. In due course, electrical appliances will come with built-in logic. They will run at hours we prescribe. We can pre-choose the lowest-cost hours or hours when real-time data say that renewable energy is on-line.
The choice is ours to make or change.      
Ideas breed ideas. The power company could switch off non-critical home appliances to avert a local power shortage. The same goes when faults or outages are sensed in power lines, perhaps from terrorist acts.
‘B’ - The $27 million in contracts will do a number of things. Structures are coming in three projects:
•A 2-megawatt photovoltaic facility atop the county’s capped landfill to make solar power
•A 7-megawatt-hour battery storage system
•A smart house to demonstrate new construction techniques, smart meters and smart appliances.
Other agreements involve LANL and its work in grid modeling and simulation. Modeling will apply results from the local microgrid to designs of a widespread Smart Grid having old and new energy sources on it. Some parts will work better than expected; others will do worse. These pros and cons point to still smarter grids. We see why companies join alliances and invest in projects.
Get used to the term NEDO. It is the Anglo acronym for Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.
Other alliances are doing real-life projects elsewhere around the country and the world. Los Alamos and its utilities department can be proud of their part.               

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water