As a solar farm soaks up energy from the sun, a turbine harnesses power from the wind — while charging a lithium battery. At its new $5 million utility-scale microgrid, Ameren Illinois can aggregate clean, renewable energy sources with advanced automation and energy storage.
The facility, which was built in just eight months, is sited at Ameren’s Technology Applications Center (TAC) and adjacent to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, Illinois. At the microgrid facility, Ameren Illinois can test integration, monitoring and control methods of distributed energy resources (DERs).
While microgrids are relatively new — they sometimes power corporate campuses or military bases — the Ameren Illinois microgrid is said to be the first in North America to operate at utility-scale voltages between 4 kV and 34.5 kV and serve live customer loads on an actual utility distribution feeder. In addition, the microgrid can seamlessly transition the power source for an entire distribution circuit from exclusively distributed generation sources to the traditional grid through islanding. In turn, Ameren Illinois can deliver more than 1 MW to paying customers without experiencing an outage.
In today’s world, large companies and high-energy users are trying to find ways to become more energy self-sufficient. By integrating microgrids into its system, Ameren Illinois can provide not only cleaner energy, but also a stronger, smarter grid to meet the needs of future customers and communities, says Richard Mark, chairman and president, Ameren Illinois.
Because the utility industry is changing quickly, Ameren Illinois looked for a way to put the microgrid into a real-life application for a portion of its customer base. The Ameren microgrid can produce up to 1475 kW, which is enough to power more than 190 homes and businesses. On the 5-acre property, the leased generation assets include a 100-kW Northern Power systems wind turbine, a 125-kW Yingli solar array and two 500-kW Caterpillar generators.
The controlling devices that aggregate power generated by these resources are housed in a climate-controlled building on site. Other facilities include a structure housing additional test equipment, an existing substation and about 0.08 acres of solar panels. All of the distributed generation resources were built at the same time as the microgrid, including a wind turbine that towers above the nearby University of Illinois. The leased generation assets are supplemented by a 250-kW S&C Electric Co. battery storage that can supply about two hours of energy, providing adequate time for Ameren Illinois to transfer its load back and forth from the microgrid to the utility grid. To charge the batteries, Ameren Illinois can rely on its wind, solar or natural gas.
To develop a smarter energy infrastructure, Ameren is not only investing in its new microgrid, but also adding new equipment and technology to reduce outages and improve power reliability, thanks, in part, to a new state law that allows the company to accelerate its investments in building a more advanced energy infrastructure.
Since the landmark Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, or Smart Grid Bill, was passed in 2011 in Illinois, Ameren Illinois’ grid modernization initiatives have resulted in an overall 17% increase in reliability and saved customers an estimated $45 million each year.
The work at the microgrid complements these efforts as the company builds a smarter grid that is more reliable, more resilient against storms, and allows customers to take more control of their energy usage. For example, this summer, Ameren Illinois began installing smart meters at 83,000 customer locations in Champaign County in Illinois. These advanced two-way devices will provide Ameren Illinois customers with energy use data and easy access to programs to reduce energy, manage their energy needs and save money. In addition, the smart meters will give the utility a quicker outage notification, which can speed restoration.
Over the last three years, Ameren Illinois has been implementing its smart meter program, and by the end of 2020, 1.2 million of its electric customers will be on the automated metering. The utility hired a contractor to install the smart meters, and its in-house meter specialists are responsible for maintaining them.
Beyond the smart meters, Ameren Illinois is also installing other high-tech automation like IntelliRupters, smart switches and fault detectors. As a result, the utility’s customers will experience a blink in lights, but not a three- or four-hour outage, when a system disruption is detected and corrected.
Before Ameren Illinois sends out truck to restore power, it can test equipment inside of its substation and provide 24/7 monitoring of most of its equipment. With this preventative maintenance approach, the energy company can detect faults or failures before they happen, saving money in the long run.
For example, Ameren Illinois is testing new technology such as pole sensors, which can detect when poles are leaning in high wind conditions. Before the pole experiences a failure, the pole can be tested with small sensors to perform forensics on the condition and structural integrity of the pole.
In the future, the redundancy created by microgrids could help Ameren Illinois reduce the number of times it needs to call out its linemen and other field workers in the middle of the night. For example, when a storm passes through Ameren Illinois’ service territory, a line goes down and the utility grid is impacted, Ameren Illinois can feed power from the microgrid. With its smart components, it can read the system to determine when the circuit is down.
Instead of experiencing a lengthy outage, the 192 customers fed by the microgrid only see a brief blink in the lights as the microgrid takes over. Because these residential and commercial customers are fed by a different source, much in the way that a home relies on a generator during a power outage, Ameren Illinois plans to use mapping applications to indicate exactly which homes and businesses are fed through the
In addition to making linemen aware of those customers fed by the microgrid, Ameren Illinois also will need to provide other training. While linemen will still be responsible for building and maintaining power lines for years to come, it may take a different skill set to work on the microgrids. These new workers must have the technical aptitude and experience to work with software, ensure that the alternative energy that feeds into the grid is balanced, and provide the reliability and power quality that customers have come to expect. As far as working out on the lines, linemen may also need to learn more about the renewable energy systems and how to maintain them through future training sessions.
Down the road, Ameren Illinois also hopes to recruit new engineers to work on its microgrid. Currently, interns and co-ops are learning about the changing world of electric utilities. In the future, power companies will no longer just deliver traditional sources of power, but they will also integrate DERs and smart technology into the system. It will take a nimble, highly skilled technical workforce to manage these capabilities.
Future of the Microgrid
When building the new microgrid, Ameren Illinois faced a major challenge: seamlessly serving actual customers while maintaining a high level of power quality. Also, the company is testing the different DERs — solar, wind and its battery storage — to determine which is the most economically feasible.
Ameren Illinois put the microgrid in service in December 2016 and began testing in January 2017. During this time, the utility worked closely with its partner, S&C Electric, to ensure all of the equipment could feed into the system and that the power quality remained consistent.
In Phase 2, Ameren Illinois plans to deploy energy storage and automated controls at locations across its service territory. By integrating the battery storage, the utility will be able to evaluate and manage the DERs and learn how to balance it across the grid.
Although Ameren Illinois has tested the microgrid many times, it is still looking to test price signals and feed the DERs into the grid to see the actual application for the customer.
By being able to transfer a load from the utility grid to the microgrid and back, Ameren Illinois will be able to meet its customers’ power needs both now and in the future. ♦
Ron Pate is the senior vice president of operations and technical services for Ameren Illinois.
Tamer Rousan served as one of the lead engineers for Ameren Illinois’ microgrid project.
Sidebar: Harnessing the Future of Energy
By Richard J. Mark, chairman and president of Ameren Illinois
For most of 2016, motorists on South Neil Street, local business owners and area residents likely took notice of what was shaping up in an otherwise nondescript business park near the University of Illinois. Inside the grounds, a towering wind turbine peered over the tree line, turning prairie winds into power. A large array of solar panels silently harnessed energy from the sun. A Caterpillar natural gas generator ran full throttle, cranking out kilowatts. And nearby, huge storage cabinets housed a complex system of batteries that captured the clean, renewable energy being generated and readied it for distribution onto the larger grid.
As I walked the 5-acre tract with our project managers, I could not have been more impressed with what our team had accomplished. Along with our construction and design partner, including engineering and construction contractor S&C Electric, we had completed what industry experts are calling the most technologically advanced utility-scale microgrid in North America. And we did it in eight months.
Standing at the base of the 160-ft Northern Power Systems Wind Turbine and peering up at the spinning blades, I couldn’t help but think that we were on the ground floor of a movement that could one day re-shape the way energy is produced and delivered to our customers. Like a tech entrepreneur in the garage creating the next internet business, I truly felt like we were at a pioneering moment for the future of energy independence.
The energy delivery system that we have all come to rely on is in the midst of transformative change. After all, the electric grid looks much like it did 100 years ago. But behind the scenes and at facilities like the Ameren microgrid, we are testing innovative new approaches to build a smarter infrastructure and fulfill the emerging demand for cleaner energy sources.
It’s a fact that larger companies, military installations and some private citizens are seeking energy self-sufficiency. It is incumbent upon companies like Ameren to prepare for a disruption to the traditional utility business model. With the microgrid, we are proactively testing and developing the capabilities to manage demand and control and economically dispatch both customer-owned and utility-owned distributed energy resources (DERs).
Our ultimate aim is to create a business case that will enable us to cost-effectively build and maintain these facilities for our customers.
Ameren’s microgrid is a one-of-a-kind facility. It is one of the few in the world that operate at utility-scale voltages — between 4 kV and 34.5 kV — with multiple levels of control. It is also the only known microgrid in the nation capable of seamlessly transitioning the power source for an entire distribution circuit from exclusively distributed renewable generation sources to the traditional grid. In fact, the wind, solar and natural gas assets on this site can produce up to 1475 kW and are powering 190 nearby homes and businesses in Champaign, Illinois.
What does all this mean to the consumer? Think ahead 10, 15 or 20 years. There will be substantial changes in how and where they get the power to run their home or business. As these renewable energy sources become more accessible, they will have a menu of options available. Like today, they may be able sell the excess power you generate and put it back onto the larger grid.
Ameren Illinois and other delivery-only utilities will be their partners. We’ll be the experts to help customers to safely install and cost-effectively operate these resources. We will integrate all of these assets under one control scheme and have the distribution monitoring expertise to ensure that it is safely delivered. In short, the customers will be in control. We will be their trusted advisers.
When we put together the design for the microgrid, we wanted it to be unique, we wanted it to be different and we wanted it to be a facility that would truly provide the reliability, resiliency and redundancy that today’s customer demands. There are very few places in North America where you can truly see the future of energy at work. At Ameren Illinois, there is no better time than today to focus on innovation and to discover the solutions that will allow our company — and our customers — to succeed in the years ahead.