The U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently completed preliminary testing of its promising Economic Dispatch system at a combined cooling, heating, and power plant in Upstate New York. The initial results at the facility indicated that the new technology out-performed the previous method and delivered cost-savings of about $50 per day, which corresponds to approximately $20,000 in annual savings.

With funding from the Building Technologies Office (BTO), the Office of Electricity, and in conjunction with the Grid Modernization Initiative, PNNL developed its VOLTTRON™-based Economic Dispatch tool to optimize the operation of building-integrated combined heat and power (CHP) systems. The automated technology links the CHP units with the building’s operational system and the power grid, while monitoring external conditions like local weather and energy costs. This was made possible by another BTO-funded project— the open-source VOLTTRON™ platform—which acts as the tool’s supervisory controller and can be deployed either from the cloud or through a low-cost computing resource. Once installed, the Economic Dispatch technology has the potential to improve energy efficiency, maximize building owner return on investment, and lead to a more reliable and resilient grid.

The recent field test that concluded earlier this year was conducted at the Burrstone Energy Center’s CHP plant located in Utica, NY. The facility, which consists of four natural gas-fueled units, serves a college, hospital, and nursing home, and has the ability to sell excess electricity back to the grid. The installed, configured, and deployed Economic Dispatch technology successfully transmitted controls to the site’s CHP units. Depending on the operational strategies and external conditions, the fully automated system would evaluate whether the units should run, and which operational mode would be most beneficial according to the facility’s priorities.

By monitoring and coordinating the system components, the Economic Dispatch tool optimized the operation of the CHP plant while maintaining building function and occupant comfort. A preliminary analysis found that the PNNL method achieved savings of about $50 a day when compared to the previous control strategy. The initial results of the field test—along with the system’s low cost and ease of deployment compared to alternative methods—suggest the great potential for this technology to provide energy and cost savings to CHP operators.

Moving forward, lessons learned during this field validation will help inform future research and development of the BTO-funded Economic Dispatch tool. Frontier Energy, a project partner and the energy services provider for the Burrstone Energy Center’s CHP facility, plans to expand its use of the technology and offer the platform to its other customers. Further adoption of the Economic Dispatch system could lead to improved grid reliability and resilience and in turn, facilitate the integration of future distributed energy resources.