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Solar Decathlon Houses Make Up a Solar Village to Test Microgrid Technology

In yet one more example of the rising interest in how microgrids that incorporate renewable energy and energy storage will change the energy landscape, Missouri University of Science and Technology (MST) has created what it says is the first “Solar Village” in the U.S.

Consisting of a grouping of Solar Decathlon houses that students at MST built for competitions between 2002 and 2009, the solar village is a project created in collaboration with Missouri S&T students, faculty and staff, along with members of the university’s microgrid advisory board (Investor-owned utility Ameren, City Utilities of Springfield, Rolla Municipal Utilities and Electric Power Research Institute), several Missouri manufacturers (Milbank and Ford Motor Company) and the Army Corps of Engineers. The engineer-of-record and installer for the project was Microgrid Solar, a U.S. and Caribbean solar developer, installer, and engineering company based in St. Louis, MO.

The project has been in the works for two years and is expected to be complete by the end of next month.  A utility grant and the DOE Sunshot Initiative contributed funding for the project.

Project Specs

There are four former Solar Decathlon houses in the microgrid. The buildings each have 5- to 10-kW PV systems and there is a mix of crystalline silicon PV and thin film.  The buildings also have solar thermal systems for hot water.  The energy storage components consist of two 100 kW / 100 kWh lithium-ion iron nano-phosphate battery racks that were donated by A123 Systems. There is also a fuel cell and a heat recovery unit as part of the microgrid.

Graduate students currently live and work in the houses, which also include electric vehicle charging stations. The microgrid is built so that it can island from the utility grid indefinitely.

Even though the military has been designing microgrids for ten years now, the project is a first “from the perspective of testing new designs and new equipment in a very closely monitored research setting,” according to Marc Lopata, PE, the Principal Engineer on this project and President of Microgrid Solar.  “We have the capability to power any of the houses independently from the grid or the central plant,” he said. “And we have the capability to plug in new equipment for testing and do graduate level experimentation.”

Tony Arnold, Assistant Director of the Office of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engagement at MST said in a statement that the solar village will be used “as a research tool and testing center for microgrid technology, battery technology and system communications.”  He believes that projects like the solar village need to be “scalable, replicable and flexible, so that we have the opportunity to test as many different scenarios as possible.”  According to Arnold, major utilities, companies and the U.S. Army’s Prime Power School have expressed interest in the project.

Advancing the New Energy Paradigm

Microgrids are of growing importance across the globe.  Last month, Renewable Energy World visited the Nice Grid in Carros, France. The Nice Grid uses solar PV, demand response and three different levels of energy storage in order to achieve a smarter grid that is able to “island” for up to four hours. 

The Missouri project, although much smaller in scale, will be used to test new equipment, software and firmware, as well as procedures for controlling the loads and supplies and procedures for how they communicate with utilities, according to Lopata. “Plus, I’m sure, a plethora of as-yet-to-be-imagined research topics,” he said adding that Microgrid Solar installed extra conduits in all the houses for potential future use.

Microgrid Solar installs microgrids in remote places such as the Caribbean and Lopata emphatically stated that microgrids “are not for everyone.”  Today, the cost of installing a microgrid that includes energy storage (a must in order to firm the power supply and dispatchability) is at least twice that of a normal utility grid connection and could be as high as five times that cost.  Lopata said microgrids only make sense in places where there is no existing grid, no utility, no local distribution or the power is unreliable or too expensive.  But all of that said, in locations where those conditions do apply, installing a microgrid could cut the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) significantly and improve the power supply, according to Lopata.

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