ENERGY: Utilities use cities to test power future

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North County Times
-

Californian, Serving North San
D
iego and Southwest Riverside counties


ENERGY: Utilities use cities to test power
future

SDG&E and Southern California Edison get ready for renewable energy

By ERIC WOLFF
-

ewolff@nctimes.com | Posted: July 1, 2010 6:00 pm |


Alan Dulgeroff, SDG&E's manager of a smart grid testing project scheduled to be installed
in Borrego Springs next year, stands next to a server last week at SDG&E's Kearny Mesa
building. The server will be installed in Borrego Springs

to help manage the electric grid. (Photo
by Eric Wolff


Staff Writer)

Borrego Springs, population 2,535, a small town on the edge of Anza
-
Borrego Desert State Park,
will soon join the suburban planned community of Irvine, population 219,793, as a launch
ing
pad of the electric grid of the future.

The two sites will serve as electric distribution laboratories to help Southern California Edison
and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. solve the challenges inherent in adding solar panels and wind
turbines into the e
lectricity generation mix.

"We'll see more change on the electric grid in the next 20 years than we saw in the last 100," said
Alan Dulgeroff, director of smart grid projects for SDG&E.

For a century, the electricity transmission system for San Diego and R
iverside counties remained
essentially unchanged: Power produced by fossil
-
fuel
-
burning generators flowed in one direction
to the utility's customers.

But as of this year, state regulations require California's utilities to buy 20 percent of their power
fr
om renewable sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, and by 2020 that proportion
must rise to 30 percent.

Renewable energy comes with challenges: Cloud cover can send the output from a solar farm
plummeting, and a spike in wind speed causes a corr
esponding spike in power generated by a
turbine. Either way, the utilities must find a way to smooth these fluctuations to keep a steady
stream of electrons heading into customers' homes. Mix in the added complication of customers
producing their own elect
ricity through rooftop solar panels, and the way utilities manage
electricity must change dramatically.

In an effort to solve these problems, both power companies have developed testing areas for their
versions of the electric grid of the future. Southern
California Edison has several test circuits in
its service area, including a major one in Irvine, and SDG&E plans to install a test bed in
Borrego Springs starting at the end of this year.

"The micro
-
grid is a petri dish for what we'll build across our ene
rgy system," Dulgeroff said.

The plans for the test areas are similar: Experiment with "self
-
healing" in the event of damage to
part of the grid, set up batteries to help with the smoothing and install home area networks that
would make it easier for utili
ties and customers to adjust their power use, known in the industry
as electricity demand.

Traditionally, the only variable in the grid was electricity usage: When a customer turns on a
light, the utility has to crank up generators a bit to meet that deman
d. But the equation was
relatively easy to manage because the utility had absolute control of its generators.

"Now when you're bringing in solar and wind, you're bringing in added sources of variability to
the system," said Virginia Lacy, a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy
nonprofit.

Finding ways to keep supply and demand balanced when both
are constantly shifting is tricky.

A crucial piece of the solution is batteries, which would allow the utilities to store
overproduction of electricity and instantly fill gaps when the sun shines less brightly.

"Energy storage is the holy grail of electric
ity," Dulgeroff said.

At their test sites, the utilities plan to put batteries on homes with solar panels. The batteries
won't be big enough to supply electricity to the home all night, but they'll be able to fill gaps in
power supplied from the panels dur
ing the day, and also provide some emergency electricity
supply back to the grid itself when needed.

SDG&E plans to install a big battery at its substation to insulate Borrego Springs against short
blackouts or brownouts caused by problems from the rest of

the region.

Edison intends to put an 8 megawatt battery at its Tehachapi Wind Farm, said Mike Montoya,
the utility's director of grid advancement. The plant sometimes generates more power than the
grid needs from it at night, when demand is low. Storing t
he excess power in the battery would
allow Edison an instant backup if wind generation falls at a time when it's needed.

"It increases system reliability, provides system capacity and smooths the intermittency of the
generation," Montoya said.

But even if
supply is variable, so is demand.

On today's grid, people run their air conditioners without regard for time of day or electricity
supply. At Borrego Springs, Dulgeroff said they'll install home networks that would allow
homeowners to manage their power us
e on an individual level.

SDG&E would monitor grid load on hot days, and when demand is too high, officials might
contact homeowners with an automated message to ask them to reduce the amount of power they
are using.

"Part of what we're doing here is looki
ng at how customers respond to different requests,"
Dulgeroff said.

Borrego Springs, located at the terminus of SDG&E's grid, also presents an ideal opportunity to
test "islanding" or "self
-
healing" in the event of damage to the system. By installing power
ful
computers at the substation and automated switches at transformers and other junction points on
the grid, SDG&E officials want to see whether they can keep Borrego Springs running when
other parts of the system have blackouts.

Edison is looking at simi
lar technology in Irvine.

"If a car runs into a pole, we want to minimize the number of homes that have a disruption,"
Montoya said.

The utilities are testing a variety of other technologies and systems as they change gears from
what they've done for a lon
g time. The adjustment won't just be about physical systems.

"There's going to be a lot of training," said Rocky Mountain Institute's Lacy. "And the changing
of mental models."

Call staff writer Eric Wolff at 760
-
740
-
5412.

© Copyright 2010,
North County Times
-

Californian
, Escondido, CA