Welcome, Stranger, to the Real Energy Revolution: Demand Flexibility and Connected Communities

Oct. 19, 2021
If you asked folks on the street about the energy revolution, they’d probably say something about renewable energy. But there is a new insurgent — energy flexibility — as the DOE’s Connected Communities highlights.

If you asked folks on the street about the energy revolution, they’d probably say something about wind and solar. They’d be a bit behind the times. Renewables were the game changer a decade ago. Today’s insurgent is energy flexibility.

Energy flexibility is a software-driven ability imbued within advanced distributed energy resources, such as microgrids.

Flexible resources can quickly respond to change patterns of electricity use on the grid by producing or curbing electrons — which is crucial because electrons are a lot like luck. Being at the right place at the right time means everything. 

When and where the electric grid needs relief, flexible resources can come to the rescue. They turn on and off in response to price signals or the sudden cessation of wind or solar, situations that can cause too much demand to chase too little power supply on the grid. In that way, they act as a booster to renewable energy growth, as we strive to make it our dominant energy resource.

Flexible resources — be they microgrids, energy storage or generators — bring a new level of efficiency to the grid. They are a non-wires alternative, a disruptive technology that offers a way to make electricity more cost-effective, sustainable and reliable without building conventional transmission lines and power plants. 

Even buildings can act as flexible resources as the US Department of Energy (DOE) highlights through its Connected Communities program, which last week allotted $61 million to 10 demonstration projects. 

As described by the DOE, the buildings will use smart controls, sensors and analytics to talk to the grid. They will ramp up or down their energy use and on-site energy production accordingly, participating in demand response and ancillary services programs. This, of course, only occurs after the needs of the building itself are met. 

“From our homes to workplaces, this groundbreaking, grid-connected building technology will help reduce our impact while cutting energy bills, maximizing convenience and propelling our efforts to reach a carbon-neutral, clean energy economy by 2050,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “These projects will help universalize technology that can maximize the efficiency and sustainability of America’s nearly 130 million buildings and make significant headway in the fight against climate change.”  

At least two of the grant recipients — Ohio State and PacifiCorp — are using microgrid technology in their flexible demand planning. Details are below, along with a list of other recipients.

Connected Communities award recipients

The Ohio State University of Columbus, Ohio

  • Scale of demand flexibility: more than 2 MW flexible load peak.
  • Expected energy savings: 35% energy reduction compared to 2017 baseline.
  • Planned location of buildings: Columbus, Ohio.
  • $4.2 million.

Ohio State will work with ENGIE North America, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley to demonstrate novel grid-interactive efficient building capabilities across 20 diverse campus buildings. Leveraging an existing mature connected campus, this project team will explore ancillary grid services across its university campus. The project will demonstrate a cybersecure predictive control of buildings and DERs to provide important but overlooked grid services like frequency regulation, synchronized reserve, and energy and capacity markets participation. Given the mature existing connected campus technologies, this project will have the opportunity to explore data privacy and cybersecurity plans, business models for institutional energy management, and occupant comfort across a range of building types and DER assets.

Xendee, partnering with ENGIE North America, is providing the techno-economic and engineering design solution for the connected communities project, which will also act as a scalable campus microgrid template for ENGIE and Xendee. The project will use Xendee’s Positronix Model Predictive Microgrid Controller, alongside other control methodologies, according to Michael Stadler, chief technology officer at Xendee.

PacifiCorp doing business as Rocky Mountain Power of Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Scale of demand flexibility: over 8 MW flexible load.
  • Expected energy savings: 30% energy savings compared to typical buildings.
  • Planned location of buildings: Herriman, Salt Lake City, and North Logan, Utah.
  • $6.42 million.

PacifiCorp, based in Portland, Oregon, will work with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Utah State University, Wasatch Energy Group, GIV Group, Utah Transit Authority, Packsize International, Open Systems International and Sonnen to implement a utility-managed distributed energy resource (DER) control program that integrates diverse building types with a range of flexible loads to optimize grid services and improve building energy efficiency. The team identified a diverse but representative set of buildings that range from a large suburban apartment complex, a downtown complex of mixed-use retail and apartments, a university laboratory and an office building with a microgrid, a mass transit transportation center, a manufacturing building and a residential home. These buildings are in various stages of development with some in operation, some currently under construction, and others where the team can influence the design. The buildings are all electric and will use efficient heat pump-based HVAC (both central and minisplits) and domestic hot water, an adaptive building envelope and advanced lighting, achieving a minimum of 30% energy efficiency compared to the baseline of typical buildings.

​​IBACOS of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 3.8 MW of flexible load to serve grid needs.
  • Expected energy savings: estimated 20% savings compared to baseline energy performance.
  • Planned location of buildings: within Duke Energy’s North Carolina utility service area.
  • $6.65 million.

IBACOS will work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Tierra Resource Consultants, Energy and Environmental Economics, Meritage Homes, Duke Energy, Energy Hub and Elevation Home Energy Solutions to deliver 3.8 MW of aggregated flexible load from a comprehensive mix of DERs deployed in 1,000 residential dwellings, including new and existing single-family and multifamily owner-occupied and rental properties in Duke Energy’s North Carolina service area. This project implements key energy-efficiency upgrades for existing properties and will explore the capabilities of a connected network of DER technologies to deliver flexible distributed capacity at scale. The data collected from this project, including occupant experience data, will provide real-world insight on the aggregated grid impacts across a large service area.

Spokane Edo of Seattle, Washington

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 1-2.25 MW flexible load.
  • Expected energy savings: up to 900 MW hours per year in energy savings.
  • Planned location of buildings: Spokane, Washington.
  • $6.65 million.

Spokane Edo will work with Avista Utilities, McKinstry, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Urbanova to upgrade up to 125 existing residential and commercial buildings. The team will implement energy-efficiency measures and DERs across a variety of Spokane’s residential and commercial buildings to provide up to 2.25 MW of flexible load and grid benefits. Specifically, the project will demonstrate non-wire alternatives in its retrofits, thereby avoiding major capital investments in distribution infrastructure by creating virtual power plants from existing buildings. The project recruitment will be focused on equity across all customer demographics, including highly impacted and vulnerable populations in Spokane’s Opportunity Zones.

Open Market ESCO of Boston, Massachusetts

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 1.2 MW (4 hour) to 4 MW (30 minute) building flexible load.
  • Expected energy savings: 30% energy reduction.
  • Planned location of buildings: Lowell, Massachusetts.
  • $6.65 million.

Open Market ESCO will work with Fraunhofer USA, Cpower, Clean Energy Group, Logical Buildings, Sparhawk Group, SunRun and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development to implement energy savings and flexible technologies across 2,000 homes. The project seeks to demonstrate the financeable pathways for existing affordable multifamily housing to become grid-interactive efficient buildings. This project will enroll up to 20 low-moderate apartment communities to strategically deploy and implement efficiency, demand flexibility, renewable generation and energy storage. The project team plans to focus on energy equity and will demonstrate pathways for bringing the energy savings, resilience, comfort and environmental benefits to these underserved communities.

Portland General Electric of Portland, Oregon

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 1.4 MW of flexible load.
  • Planned location of buildings: Portland, Oregon.
  • $6.65 million.

Portland General Electric (PGE) will work with Energy Trust of Oregon, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Community Energy Project, the National Energy Renewable Laboratory and Open Systems International to retrofit more than 500 buildings in North Portland’s Overlook and Arbor Lodge neighborhoods. This project builds on a solid foundation of Portland General Electric’s Smart Grid Testbed to demonstrate 1.4 MW of flexible loads, reduce the energy burden of low-income residents, and explore new ways to reach historically underserved communities. The project aims to utilize various energy-efficiency measures and connected devices, including smart thermostats and water heaters, and PGE’s Advanced Distribution and DER Management Systems. Through its previous testbed success, this project team anticipates high levels of participation in and awareness of its flexible load programs, and strong community engagement and adoption.

San Jose, California. Photo by Uladzik Kryhin/Shutterstock.com

SunPower of San Jose, California

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 200-700 kW.
  • Expected energy savings: 38%-57% improvement in efficiency.
  • Planned location of buildings: Menifee, California.
  • $6.65 million.

SunPower will work with KB Home, the University of California, Irvine, Schneider Electric and Southern California Edison to develop two new home communities including more than 230 homes. This project team will develop two testbeds with state-of-the-art new residential buildings that meet the DOE’s Zero Energy Ready Homes criteria. Each all electric community will implement photovoltaic systems and home energy management systems. However, the two communities will compare the benefits of community level versus residential level energy storage batteries, while providing grid services to the local utility. This project may be the blueprint to follow for building new decarbonized homes of the future.

Post Road Foundation of Oakland, California

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 1.1-2.5 MW for up to 3 hours.
  • Expected energy savings: 16% from efficiency measures.
  • Planned location of buildings: New Hampshire, Maine.
  • $6.65 million.

Post Road Foundation will work with New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, Efficiency Maine Trust, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Knowledge Problem to deploy a Transactive Energy Service System (TESS) platform that enables grid-interactive control through two-way communication between DERs and a local energy market. The project will test TESS in three rural communities in New Hampshire and Maine, each consisting of 100 to 250 single-family homes, small commercial buildings and small industrial customers. The team expects that TESS will be able to do the following:

  1. Facilitate more effective use of distribution systems through load flexibility, with applications such as peak load management.
  2. Reveal the financial value of DER deployment on a distribution system.
  3. Lower financial and engineering hurdles to beneficial electrification.

Slipstream Group of Madison, Wisconsin

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 216 kW of flexible load.
  • Expected energy savings: 39% total energy savings.
  • Planned location of buildings: Madison, Wisconsin.
  • $5.18 million.

Slipstream Group, in partnership with Madison Gas and Electric, the City of Madison, Rocky Mountain Institute, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and bluEvolution, will convert approximately 15 facilities in Madison, Wisconsin, to GEBs and add nearby electric vehicle charging. As these improvements demonstrate reliable and cost-effective efficiency and demand flexibility improvements, the project will expand to additional privately owned buildings, providing a scalable business model for utilities to install demand flexibility and energy-efficiency upgrades across multiple building sizes in the public and private sectors. The project will also deliver a GEB toolkit with integrated financing options to address opportunities in public and private buildings across multiple sizes and use cases.

Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto, California

  • Scale of demand flexibility: 2.6 MW flexible load.
  • Expected energy savings: 30% energy savings.
  • Planned location of buildings: proposed for New York City, New York; Seattle, Washington; and San Diego, California.
  • $5.27 million.

Electric Power Research Institute will work with Gas Technology Institute, Seattle City Light, Community Roots Housing, Vistar Energy and Sentient Buildings to transform multifamily buildings in disadvantaged communities into grid-interactive efficient buildings. The project team will retrofit more than 2,000 dwellings in affordable housing communities in three geographically dispersed cities – New York, Seattle and San Diego. By implementing efficiency, flexibility, storage and distributed generation, the project team will demonstrate different decarbonization pathways, reduce energy cost burden, improve system resilience and provide distribution and bulk grid services.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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