Buildings and the Grid 101: How Are Building Technologies Office Partners Researching and Validating in the Field?

May 1, 2018

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By Justin Hill and Jim Leverette, Southern Company

Southern Company is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building Technologies Office (BTO) and other DOE offices and National Laboratories on research and development about grid-interactive, efficient buildings. This guest blog is authored by Justin Hill and Jim Leverette, both Southern Company R&D engineers.

With a rapidly changing energy industry, Southern Company recognizes that accelerating technology development is more important than ever. This is why Southern Company Research and Development (R&D) is partnering with world-class researchers to help us, and the industry, better understand how to make efficient and effective buildings-to-grid interaction a reality. This research will help Southern Company understand the opportunities these interactions create for the grid, as well as the challenges presented when interfacing with consumer devices. Buildings-to-grid R&D is beginning to develop across the industry, and the results from these types of initiatives will help Southern Company better meet customers’ evolving energy needs while simultaneously increasing the overall resiliency and flexibility of the grid.

SMART NEIGHBORHOODS

With the Smart NeighborhoodTM projects, Southern Company and its Alabama Power and Georgia Power subsidiaries are proactively simulating what the future may hold for utilities and their customers. In a future filled with distributed energy resources (DERs) and microgrids, these projects will help Southern Company adapt and continue providing clean, safe, reliable, affordable energy to the customers and communities that we serve. Smart Neighborhood consists of two separate efforts – one in Alabama and one in Georgia – that explore unique approaches to microgrid management. Both locations contain three main technology pillars for exploring different solutions for managing DERs:

  1. High-Performance Homes: The homes in both communities will be built according to high-efficiency construction techniques and with a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score between 40 and 50. This is to represent how typical residential construction may look 20 years from now.
  2. DERs: Solar panels, natural gas generators, and batteries are deployed in two unique configurations. In one effort, the assets are grouped into a community-scale generating station that can power the community in grid-connected or islanded mode. The second configuration looks at a series of individual home-based renewable generation and battery energy storage technologies. Both scenarios will help inform new strategies to integrate DERs seamlessly into real-time grid operations.

  3. Buildings-to-Grid Communication: In both locations, each home contains a set of Internet-connected devices that can interact with the DER assets and the grid to manage and shift energy consumption while maintaining customer comfort. This approach taps into the inherent flexibility and thermal energy storage capability of water heating and HVAC to serve as an additional asset in both a grid-connected and islanded operation.

The Alabama Power Smart Neighborhood is made up of 62 single-family homes and a nearby community-scale microgrid, comprised of solar panels, battery energy storage and natural gas generator. Both the homes and microgrid are using Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)-developed control algorithms for CSEISMIC and BTO-developed VOLTTRON. The new VOLTTRON-based home energy management system communicates with water heater and HVAC systems, while CSEISMIC research focuses on developing and testing microgrid control algorithms that help manage generation assets and communicate with VOLTTRON to implement different microgrid use cases.

The Georgia Power Smart Neighborhood involves 46 townhomes – each with rooftop solar panels and a behind-the-meter in-home battery energy storage system. This community will use a new ORNL-developed branch of VOLTTRON to manage DERs and end-use assets at the home level and implement predictive controls to maximize value to both homeowners and the grid. Additionally, it will help us better understand how these townhomes can be aggregated and managed to provide valuable grid resources using CSEISMIC-based control algorithms.

GRID MODERNIZATION INITIATIVE

In addition to the  Smart Neighborhood efforts, Southern Company is collaborating with ORNL, Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL), the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), other Southeastern utilities and technology partners  on two projects to help modernize the existing electric grid and integrate grid-interactive residential and small commercial buildings.

First, the Unified Control of Connected Loads project researches possibilities to upgrade controls within small commercial convenience stores to use the flexibility and thermal storage capability of refrigeration for nonperishable items. Developing a retrofit system for coordinating the operation of multiple building loads can reduce peak demand and overall energy consumption, as well as provide transactive controls to the electric grid through the development of unified control logic, supervisory control methods and priority-based control logic – all subsets of complex control science.

The second project, Integration of Responsive Residential Loads into Distribution Management Systems, investigates how a fully open, standard-based, technology framework can be integrated into a Distributed Energy Resource Management System. This project will help us better understand the different value streams connected buildings can offer to the grid, and the appropriate internal function of control and hierarchy of priorities to gain the most beneficial implementation.

Overall, Southern Company is working in the buildings-to-grid space because we intend to lead the change and not only meet customers’ energy needs today, but also build the future of energy while anticipating tomorrow.

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This blog post was edited after initial publication for clarity.