Outperforming the status quo

A California university teams up with smart grid software partners

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine May/June 2010


''WHAT I LIKE MOST ABOUT MY JOB IS that I cannot exceed the imagination of my colleagues,'' said Byron Washom, the University of California at San Diego's director of strategic energy initiatives. ''I bring in former utility colleagues of mine, and the first thing they say when they visit the [UCSD] campus is time travel.'' However, for UCSD insiders like Washom, the innovations his colleagues refer to are not futuristic. They merely form the backbone of a university that predicates progress on the sustainability of its campus.

The university's most recent venture is the advancement of its internal smart grid through a software partnership with two companies: one focused on virtual power generation, and another providing UCSD with the software to manage and optimize the information it is receiving from the first. The university's microgrid can be monitored and re-optimized hourly, depending on pricing signals, congestion constraints, operating efficiencies, solar forecasts and weather reports. UCSD's microgrid has distributed generation, renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency and demand-response capabilities.

Here's how the partnership works. The first company's software integrates weather, load and price information and sends the second company's power systems engineering modeling platform new instructions for how it should economically optimize the microgrid each hour of the day. The smart grid software continuously monitors the data points it receives. ''If it starts to see a divergence from the economic and physical ideal, then it can self-heal to bring the system back in line with the way it should be performing perfectly,'' Washom said.

Although the modeling platform isn't new-it is installed on mission-critical facilities across the United States from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) control center to offshore oil rigs to some nuclear power plants-the partnership between the two companies and the university is unique.

University played matchmaker
''We were the matchmaker between [the two],'' said Washom. ''The idea is if we demonstrate it here on campus through performance improvement and cost reduction, one would think that the commercialization of those two products, as individuals or as a suite, would go forward.'' ''Other companies are trying to build the system from the ground up,'' he said, but that is a mistake. ''More product developers need to recognize that microgrids are a very large market, and that software can be installed on a microgrid much more easily than at a regular utility.''

''We are self-permitting,'' Washom continued. ''We don't need local building permits for innovations, whereas regulated utilities have to … and we are not subjected to a 20/20 hindsight prudency review like a regulated utility has for their rate base.''

Microgrid enables sustainability
According to Washom, UCSD's microgrid enables it to self-generate 82 percent of its power from two 13.5-megawatt gas turbines, one 3-megawatt steam turbine and one 1.2-megawatt solar-cell installation, and to produce electricity, heat and cooling at a higher degree of efficiency than the local utility and at a lower cost.

''We are outperforming the status quo of society,'' he said.

The university also operates an impressive energy storage system that allows it to shift 7 to 14 percent of its daily on-peak cooling load to the night by charging a 4-million-gallon thermal energy-storage tank. The storage tank employs chillers that can recover the waste heat from the cogeneration system, or chillers that use the electricity that would have been throttled back during off-peak hours.

Reducing costs by increasing efficiencies
Between 1993 and 2008, the university completed more than $60 million in projects that increased efficiencies and reduced costs by more than $12 million annually, including a high-voltage substation, cogeneration, thermal energy storage, comprehensive digital building controls and HVAC retrofits. In 2009, UCSD received funding approval for a three-year, $72 million program, which will include projects to upgrade laboratory HVAC, campus-wide lighting and comprehensive monitoring-based commissioning.

''We have about 12 million square feet on campus and we are about the size of a city of 45,000 people. Our energy density per square foot is twice that of a regular office building due to our research and patient care operations,'' said Washom. ''Since we have this diet for high energy we are all the more sensitive to consumption and to the nature of how it is produced and delivered.''

Because UCSD is in a statewide partnership with the California Public Utilities Commission and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the university is able to do all this at little cost.

''We are provided with a financial incentive from SDG&E for each kilowatt-hour saved, and whatever the first-year incentive doesn't offset or pay down, we are allowed to borrow at prevailing low-interest rates for the remaining value,'' Washom said.

Due to continued interest and investment from both the public and private sectors, the university keeps adding to its laundry list of accomplishments.

''Being a living laboratory, we have a number of companies that come here with a request to demonstrate their technology in this advanced environment to bring a higher profile to their product,'' Washom said. ''We enjoy being that incubator.''

Washom only sees continued incubation in the future.

''We have an interesting administration here at UCSD, where we have the chancellor and four vice chancellors who compete to outperform one another when it comes to sustainability initiatives,'' he said. ''There is this little intramural between them as to who can raise the bar just a little bit higher.''

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