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 non-descript 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 five-acre tract with our project managers, I could not have been more proud – or impressed – with what our team had accomplished. Along with our construction and design partners – including engineering and construction contractor S&C Electric, we had just completed what industry experts are calling the most technologically advanced utility scale microgrid in North America. And we did it in eight months.
I was at the facility to do a final site visit and help prepare our team to host Ameren's senior leadership team for a tour the next day. Standing at the base of the 160-foot 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. You probably don't give a second thought to substations that you pass on your way to work or the power poles and wires that hover above you on a morning run. 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're 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're proactively testing and developing the capabilities to manage demand and control and economically dispatch both customer-owned and utility-owned distributed energy resources. 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. This concept, known as "islanding," enables Ameren to deliver more than 1-megawatt to live (paying) customers without experiencing an outage. In fact, the wind, solar, and natural gas assets on this site can produce up to 1,475 kW and are powering 190 nearby Champaign homes and businesses.
What does all this mean to the consumer?
Think ahead 10, 15, 20 years. There will be substantial changes in how and where you get the power to run your home or business. As these renewable energy sources become more accessible, you will have a menu of options available. Like today, you 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 your partners. We'll be the experts to help you safely install and cost-effectively operate these resources. We'll integrate all of these assets under one control scheme and have the distribution monitoring expertise to ensure that it is safely delivered. In short, you'll be in control. We'll be your 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 discover the solutions that will allow our company – and our customers – to succeed in the years ahead.
I’m optimistic about our future.