Changes are coming to the grid, slowly, but surely. Here in the United States, some utilities perceive increasing threats to revenue as well as technical and operational challenges as more homeowners install solar and other sources of renewable energy as their primary source of electricity. Since an electric grid works best when there is a balance of supply and demand, grid operators have to figure out how to make up for any shortfall or surge of renewable energy that could happen at any time.
As a result of these changes, smart grid technology is being developed and tested here in New Mexico in partnership with Toshiba, Kyocera, Affordable Solar, Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Affordable Solar built a 1.8 megawatt micro-grid and a 2,418 square foot “smart house.” The project pairs the solar system with a lithium-ion battery system, a heat pump storage unit, and sensors and communication equipment. The idea is to figure out how to operate all this equipment to meet the energy demand of the home and respond to any requests from the utility or grid operator to use the solar electricity for balancing the grid.
What Toshiba took away from this test pilot here in New Mexico was the basis of a plan now being implemented in Germany, another country that is seeing dramatic change to their utility grids. In fact, traditional utilities may simply become irrelevant.
Toshiba, the Japanese electronics and engineering firm, has been developing a larger scale project using the technology tested here in New Mexico whereby utilities in Germany will be bypassed and solar electricity will be offered directly to German apartment dwellers. This plan is referred to as an “on-site consumption model”. The company will initially finance 3 megawatts of systems, and install them on apartments owned by the German real estate company GAGFAH. Toshiba’s project development arm will own and operate the systems, purchase the solar electricity, and then sell it to consumers “at a lower rate than that charged by electric utilities.”
The overall plan, which was researched and developed with the Los Alamos “smart house”, is to integrate storage and manage the resources through its software platform. This German project will enable Toshiba to match up its monitoring platform with their solar projects, replacing, in effect, a utility’s traditional role in load balancing and management.