A new solar-powered, neighborhood-level microgrid developed by Emera Technologies LLC could have spared vulnerable communities in California from blackouts during this summer’s intense heat and raging wildfires, had it been installed there.
The microgrid, called the BlockEnergy Smart Platform, is designed to provide communities of up to 50 houses with around-the-clock electricity from rooftop solar panels backed up by battery storage and fully operated by an automated smart control system that can keep the neighborhood lights on even in adverse conditions. The system includes built-in safeguards to keep supplying electricity to the community at large – even if solar panels or battery storage fail on one or more homes, or on installations inside the neighborhood.
And if surrounding communities lose power, the blackout won’t affect BlockEnergy-connected neighborhoods, because the microgrid runs independently from broader commercial utility grids, said Gary Oppedahl, the company’s vice president for emerging technologies.
“If the utility grid goes down, the whole microgrid stays up,” Oppedahl said. “And if one home in the microgrid runs out of power, say, by depleting its battery storage, it will still remain online through interconnections with the rest of the system. It’s completely resilient.”
In the case of a wildfire, where generating systems may be shut down or transmission lines running through the forest are disrupted, a BlockEnergy-connected neighborhood wouldn’t lose power, because the self-contained system isn’t dependent on that infrastructure to keep operating, Oppedahl said.
Offering renewable generation with that kind of reliability and resiliency provided the initial impetus for the company to pursue the microgrid system, said Emera Technologies CEO Rob Bennett.
“States, communities and electric customers want more renewables and reliable electric systems, especially in California and the East Coast where there are reliability issues from weather,” Bennett said. “So we created a system to offer more renewable generation at the local level with built-in ability to keep the lights on.”
The company used off-the-shelf technology to create the BlockEnergy platform. That includes existing solar and battery storage systems, plus smart, automated controls that monitor everything in real time and that take immediate action to keep the electrons flowing despite any technical problems, changes in weather, or other environmental issues that arise.
“We took available technologies and put it all together in an innovative way,” Bennett said.
Boxes, homes, loops
Under the BlockEnergy platform, each individual home or installation in the microgrid has its own solar panels and battery storage, plus a “BlockBox” that contains all the electronics and smart controls to run the system. The BlockBox converts direct current, or DC, coming from solar panels into alternate current, or AC, for use in the home. It also monitors electric consumption, seamlessly switches electric flow back and forth between the solar panels and battery storage, and turns things on and off automatically in the home as needed depending on conditions at any given time.
At the same time, each home on the system is interconnected to one another, allowing all houses in the microgrid to share everything among them. Those connected homes, taken together, form a “BlockLoop.”
Next, the BlockLoop is interconnected to a central, community-level BlockBox with separate back-up battery storage to oversee the entire system as a command-control center. That central point, called the “BlockEnergy Park,” also acts as a gateway connection to utility-based commercial grids, allowing the BlockLoop microgrid to send excess electricity generated internally by the community for use by a utility elsewhere, while also allowing a utility to send electricity from outside power plants back to the microgrid if needed.
It’s a modular system with everything connected together, Bennett said.
“The system moves energy around throughout the microgrid to optimize electricity use,” Bennett said.
All solar panels and battery storage on the microgrid are effectively shared by the whole community, allowing the system to efficiently distribute electricity where, when and how it’s needed to keep the entire network running without interruption.
“Everything is shared back and forth, so if one home’s solar system defaults it will continue to feed off the rest of the microgrid,” Oppedahl said. “With individual solar systems on homes today, you can’t share electricity with your neighbors. It’s only on an interconnected microgrid like this one that you can do that to balance out the entire load for the whole community.”
The smart platform uses artificial intelligence to monitor and control things, providing automated, real-time reactions that efficiently keep everything running smoothly. Systemwide controls are located in the BlockEnergy Park, where details on solar panel generation, battery storage, and overall electric consumption throughout homes and through individual appliances are instantaneously channeled nonstop to the control center, allowing the system to react in real time to issues.
“The operations center processes data second-by-second, watt-by-watt, to know what’s happening at any given time,” Oppedahl said. “That data allows it to shut things off and turn things on when it’s most optimal.”
That smart platform has other advantages as well. For example, by continually monitoring electric generation and consumption, it can tell when appliances like air conditioners or refrigerators need maintenance, allowing consumers to address those issues on a timely basis rather than through pre-set, uniform schedules.
“Appliances have energy signatures, so you can tell when something like an air conditioner needs performance-based preventive service, such as consuming an extra 17% of electricity in a given month,” Oppedahl said. “That shows up on the operations control board.”
Since the entire microgrid is designed to be built, owned and operated by a utility with no upfront costs for homeowners, the whole system becomes a utility asset with consumers paying a monthly electric bill.
“Rather than individuals taking on all the costs and burdens of establishing rooftop solar, the utility does it,” Oppedahl said. “It provides secure energy as a service with renewables, resiliency, controls and real-time data.”
In addition, the system operates entirely on DC, converting the current to AC only when it flows into homes, and when electricity is sent back and forth through the central gateway connection that ties the microgrid to a utility’s commercial grid. That offers some big advantages.
It creates the foundation for supplying DC for future power electronics, such as charging stations for electric vehicles, Bennett said. And, it prepares the system for explorative industry efforts to eventually supply DC-based power to homes and appliances, potentially eliminating losses from DC-to-AC conversion to create greater efficiency on utility grids.