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Los Alamos Adds Brains to Its Electric Grid

Affordable Solar operations manager Blake Richards, left, and Los Alamos Public Utilities manager John Arrowsmith discuss PV panels installed at the county landfill. Photo Credit - Kevin Robinson-Avila/Journal
Affordable Solar operations manager Blake Richards, left, and Los Alamos Public Utilities manager John Arrowsmith discuss PV panels installed at the county landfill. Photo Credit - Kevin Robinson-Avila/Journal

As if Los Alamos needed more brain power. Now, even its electric grid is getting smart.

The county’s $52 million smart grid project could help improve electric grids in cities and counties throughout the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Smart grids are the way electric grids will be managed in the future, and now we’re a central testing ground for these emerging systems,” said Los Alamos County Economic Development Director Greg Fisher. “This could be a model for many other places.”

Officials plan to inaugurate Los Alamos County’s new smart, green microgrid in a ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning.

The project would provide power from a solar panel system to 2,000 homes in Los Alamos to test how to smoothly integrate renewable energy onto the grid. Such smarts grids are appearing nationwide.

The Los Alamos system includes:

♦ A 2 megawatt solar photovoltaic array

♦ Massive back-up battery storage system

♦ A demonstration “smart house” with intelligent appliances and energy systems that people can tour

♦ New meters on 2,000 homes for real-time monitoring of electric consumption

♦ Central command-and-control center to run the network

Smart grid developers

It’s the second such smart-grid demonstration project in New Mexico funded by Japan’s New Energy Industrial Technology Development Organization. NEDO has budgeted $37 million for the Los Alamos grid, including $17 million already spent to get the system running, plus $20 million to monitor and evaluate everything over the next two years. Los Alamos County is kicking in $15 million for the system, which it will own after 2014.

Separately, NEDO budgeted $22 million for a microgrid at the Mesa del Sol master-planned development in Albuquerque.

“We believe demonstration projects like these will help pave the way for more clean, sustainable energy systems in the future,” said Osamu Onodera, chief representative for NEDO’s Silicon Valley office in Santa Clara, Calif. “Huge advances in information technology have changed what is possible, and we want to test all that out in real-world settings.”

As more solar and wind energy come onto the grid, utilities need advanced technologies to switch to fossil fuel generation or stored energy sources when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. That requires modern communications and on-site smart meters to monitor electric consumption and remotely turn things on and off.

It also means smart appliances that receive signals from the grid and respond automatically. And it means creating new methods to store energy, such as advanced batteries.

“There’s a lot of pressure for utilities to move to renewable sources of energy, but that creates many issues that you don’t have with traditional fossil fuels,” said Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith. “Smart grids will help resolve some of those problems.”

Microgrids allow utilities to test new technologies before broadly integrating them onto electric systems.

NEDO has already built a 1 megawatt solar array at the site, a former county landfill. Private developers will build a second 1 megawatt array under a $10 million, 20-year power purchase agreement with Los Alamos.

Evaluating systems

The first system includes nearly 5,000 solar panels with 10 types of cells to evaluate efficiency levels in converting sunlight to electricity, said Steve Cummins, deputy utility manager for power supply.

“We get rain, hail and snow up here, so we’ll be doing a lot of testing and data collection to see how well the panels function in Los Alamos,” Cummins said.

Blake Richards, operations manager for Albuquerque’s Affordable Solar — which oversaw the solar array design and layout — said this is the first system constructed on a landfill in New Mexico, and one of the first nationwide. Placing it there created unique challenges, such as prohibiting traditional ground mounts to avoid puncturing into waste below the surface.

“We had to leave all the electric wiring above ground,” Richards said. “We encased it all in fiberglass.”

The photovoltaic arrays will supply electricity to about 2,000 homes, and to the project’s demonstration smart house.

Everything will be managed through an automated command center to instantly switch back and forth among solar, battery backup and other electric power supples. The system will use weather forecasting models to determine solar availability each day and monitoring of electric prices to decide whether it’s cheaper to use battery-stored power or to buy electricity on the market when solar generation shuts down.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal


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