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Smart Microgrids: Power Where You Need It

University Business, June 2011
Campuses are using smart microgrids to leverage solar power, such as with this installation at Anne Arundel Community College (Md.), saving on energy costs and helping to meet their carbon reduction goals.

Electricity. It turns on the lights, powers the smart boards, and runs the computers that are all vital to a modern campus. Acquiring that electricity can be both an expensive proposition and a key part of an environmental action plan. With the size and variety of buildings on campus, some colleges and universities have their own power stations on campus to ease their dependence on public utility companies. Most have their own microgrids to distribute power generated from any source. Now campus leaders are looking into giving those microgrids an education.

A smart microgrid allows campus facilities managers, or contracted service providers, to measure and respond to energy demands in near real time leading to more efficient distribution of available power. The reduction in energy consumption and associated reduced energy costs “has the potential to play an important role in campus sustainability, particularly to campuses that are doing climate action planning and have set aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals,” says Niles Barnes, projects coordinator at AASHE. Smart microgrids, as he explains it, tie together the power source, transmission, distribution, and consumption into one system.

Santa Clara University (Calif.) is working toward the goal of producing 3 megawatts of green power on campus. “That would give us the capability to operate the campus independent of the public grid,” says Joe Sugg, assistant vice president of university operations. If demand outstrips the 3 mw, they can draw on the public grid, as well.

One building on campus has been outfitted with a smart grid consisting of a Cisco mediator and a Serious Energy control box. Based on programmed priorities, the system was able to load balance the energy coming from a diesel generator and solar panels on campus and the public utility grid. The system automatically turned off lights, changed the temperature, and adjusted the power output from the generator in response to how much solar power was being generated. With the successful tests, officials are looking to deploy the system campuswide. “Since then, we had two unannounced grid power outages and our system was still running,” he adds.

Energy demand and costs in California are high and Sugg says the smart grid and on-campus power generation fit in with Santa Clara’s goals of reducing its carbon footprint and finding a reliable and affordable energy source. “Our primary revenue source is student tuition and that only happens if we are holding class,” he says. “Those 3 megawatts allow us to stay open.”

On the East Coast, Drexel University (Pa.) has partnered with Viridity Energy to implement a smart grid. The project started in three newer buildings with advanced management systems. “We are leveraging these building management systems that ran a single building and making them work together,” says Chika Nwankpa, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department. By connecting the building systems to the internet, Viridity can remotely control HVAC systems for optimal functions. Since the project launched in July 2010, Drexel has saved an estimated 20 percent on energy costs for the three test buildings, says Laurie Actman, director of strategic partnerships and public policy at Viridity.

By reducing reliance on energy from public utilities through on-campus generation and smart distribution, colleges and universities are being good neighbors by creating less demand on the grid that supports area communities. Officials have the option of making greener energy choices as well as saving money on energy costs, which is never a bad thing. “Spending less on electricity is money you can put to other goals,” points out Actman. --Ann McClure