The city of Portland and three partners have launched a pilot to offer emergency microgrid support in a park statue that will charge cell phones and store emergency supplies.
It’s a classic project for this green city, featuring solar, storage and pedal power in a visible, small public park on Portland State University’s (PSU) campus.
But the $300,000 pilot “PrepHub” project — a partnership of the city, Portland General Electric (PGE), PSU, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — aims to achieve more than cell phone charging in a single location, said Conrad Eustis, director of retail technology strategy for PGE.
Microgrid statues as public landmarks
The hope is to build about 40 to 50 more microgrid statues in Portland parks that will become well-known public landmarks — much like Portland’s solar-powered parking meters and wildlife statues. Planners envision people seeking out the emergency microgrid statues during earthquakes or other disasters.
MIT conceived the the PrepHub idea for the emergency microgrid support. Portland’s is the first that will be grid-connected, said Eustis.
“In order to let people know this exists, MIT created a visual object.” — Eustis
“The idea is that people will have a place to charge their phones. In order to let people know this exists, MIT created a visual object,” he said. For lack of a better word, Eustis calls it a statue, which is about five feet long. In addition to offering charging, the structure will include basic emergency supplies.
What’s more, the project aims to help PGE learn how to use storage and microgrids to support the grid, providing peak power, load following, and spinning reserve functions, said Eustis.
The prototype microgrid’s pedals, when operated, can charge a USB cell phone. A 4-kW to 8-kW sized inverter will be added. In addition, 15 to 30 kWh of storage will be included. One of the vertical columns of the structure will include about 300 watts of PV solar, Eustis said.
Emergency microgrid part of earthquake plan
In emergency mode, the park feature will include a kiosk that provides updates about the status of natural disasters. In addition, it will be able to charge 50 to 100 cell phones. In non-emergency mode, the kiosk will provide information about the project’s goals.
“This is actually a very aggressive disaster planning project on the city’s part, with 40 to 50 sites that will have emergency supplies, communications, and first aid equipment,” said Eustis.
They’re part of a city network called Basic Earthquake Emergency Communication Node (BEECN), a network of locations for residents to visit after disasters. In addition to having microgrids capable of operating offline, the sites will have secure, locked storage for emergency equipment. Trained volunteers will manage the sites and have access to the supplies, said Eustis.
The PrepHubs were designed by MIT’s Urban Risk Lab. PSU is working on microgrid, storage controls and interfaces with PGE’s system. The PV system will be connected to a PSU control center, he said.
PSU, which has been working on control systems for more than five years, is helping design control specifications that will ultimately be provided to potential vendors, Eustis said.
Feeds into Portland’s energy storage initiative
The PrepHub project will also tie into PGE’s larger energy storage initiative, said Eustis. In 2015, PGE and stakeholders created an energy storage mandate that became law. It called for up to one percent of a utility’s peak load (38.7 MW for PGE) by 2020 to be provided through storage resources, according to a PGE filing with state regulators.
“In order to meet the guidelines and prepare for the future, PGE proposes investing in a variety of storage projects that allow the company and stakeholders to best understand the approaches to storage that might make most sense in the future,” said PGE’s storage filing with the Oregon Public Utility Commission. The company plans a number of energy storage experiments, including energy storage in residential customers’ homes, said Eustis. That would include up to 500 residential, behind-the-meter storage pilot projects, with storage controlled by PGE. The goal of that pilot would be to “develop the ability to operate a distributed, aggregated fleet of storage assets,” said the filing.
The PrepHub project is MIT’s first long-term prototype, according to materials provided by MIT. A series of design workshops will be held by MIT in the fall, and the first of the microgrid statues is expected to be installed by next summer.
Pedal power, PV and partnership are all classic Portland, and hopefully will yield the green innovation this city is known for.
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