When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, winds uprooted trees and destroyed homes, and torrential rains turned streets into rivers. But after the storm passed, the toll continued to rise as residents struggled without power for months. Five years later, power outages remain long and frequent.
Read and watch the Spanish version of this story and video.
To provide more affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity to underserved communities like these, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are partnering with local organizations, nonprofits, and universities to build sustainable independent microgrids powered by renewable energy. ORNL is developing technology that will manage groups of small microgrids as a cluster and increase their reliability even when damaged.
Microgrids are generally small networks that have their own power supply from nearby renewable sources such as wind and solar. If battery storage is added, microgrids can be isolated and operate independently in “island mode” when the wider utility grid fails.
ORNL engineers Ben Ollis and Max Ferrari lead a team developing a microgrid orchestration to deploy in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. A community microgrid project is already being installed there through a partnership between local nonprofit Casa Pueblo and the Honnold Foundation.
Honnold, which funds solar projects to reduce global energy poverty, is investing $1.7 million to create two microgrids with solar power and battery storage, said Honnold project coordinator Cynthia Arellano. The solar arrays were installed last year and will join the rest of the infrastructure to be added this year.
That’s where ORNL gets to work: Creating a new orchestration tool to manage a cluster of microgrids so they directly support and communicate with each other, making them more resilient during long power outages. For example, if one microgrid loses some of its solar energy, an adjacent microgrid can export energy to its neighbor, minimizing the impact of the loss.
“I don’t know of a microgrid controller anywhere that can communicate and coordinate with another controller,” Ollis said. “We’re designing an architecture for multi-microgrid management, so any number of microgrids can operate independently, but share information with the orchestrator to predict switching, routing and connectivity.”
Ferrari said preliminary simulations show the microgrids could outlast each other for at least a week. But under ideal conditions, they can continue to work indefinitely.
It’s not just a matter of convenience. “Many people died after the hurricane, and most of the deaths were due to power outages,” said Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, which promotes equitable and sustainable development around Adjuntas. This long-standing community organization installed a solar energy system on its building in 1999. After Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo was able to share the electricity it produced with residents using home medical equipment like respirators.
“We saw how many people who were pre-diabetic or had high blood pressure or were exposed to unhealthy living conditions and food — preventable conditions — were getting sick,” Massol-Deya said. “Energy security cuts are related to quality of life and have long-term consequences in society.” The result is grass roots support for solar power that builds sustainably.
Adjuntas’ microgrids include rooftop solar installations at 13 businesses, whose owners agree to provide residents with critical services such as medicine, refrigeration and cell phone charging during power outages. In return, businesses save electricity and avoid using expensive diesel generators during natural disasters, Ferrari said.
“ORNL deploying this kind of watchdog system is going to be a really powerful tool for the community,” Arellano said. He added that it is unusual for so many businesses and owners to be connected to a microgrid, and the infrastructure will support adding more.
On a recent trip to Adjuntas, ORNL researchers met with local business owners to better understand electricity usage patterns. For example, when Ferrari visited a bakery, he learned how many hours the refrigerators had to run for the dough to rise properly. He and Ollis tried to identify the most critical electrical loads so they could design a system that concentrated scarce power where it was needed most.
“I hope this will help not only manage microgrids, but also protect critical components like energy storage,” said Massol-Deya, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, or UPRM.
Revenue from community-owned microgrids will fund their maintenance and expansion, as well as the installation of standalone solar systems for Adjuntas’ most disadvantaged residents, he said.
A sense of urgency
Fabio Andrade is a UPRM professor of engineering and visiting scientist at ORNL collaborating on the Adjuntas project. His students model strategies, tools, and algorithms to share solar energy among microgrid users. UPRM fellow Gerson Beauchamp has students analyze solar equipment and predict how much energy it will produce. Beauchamp said that at current electricity prices, businesses can save up to $78,000 a year by purchasing solar power from microgrids.
Ferrari incorporates input from UPRM colleagues into simulations that are being tested live with actual microgrid equipment at DOE’s Center for Grid Research Integration and Deployment, or GRID-C, at ORNL. The next step is to run the configuration on a brand new networked test bed of the facility for microgrids. In another year, the orchestra will be housed in Adjuntas.
While the ORNL-derived technology could be a real lifesaver in Puerto Rico, it also has broader potential to enable microgrids to play a key role in the global grid of the future. Smart microgrids incorporating renewable energy are poised to improve grid resilience and resilience while supporting vital decarbonisation efforts.
“Orchestrator includes a framework of algorithms that can be extended and deployed across multiple microgrids at any site,” Ollis said. “They can provide more reliable electricity to many off-grid rural communities. I want to see a future where hundreds of micro-grids work together to protect critical infrastructure at local, regional and national levels.”
ORNL’s work on the Adjuntas project is funded through DOE’s Office of Solar Energy Technologies. Much of the design, configuration, and testing of the microgrid orchestration occurs at the COMMANDER (Coordination of Multiple Microgrids and Grid Distributed Energy Resources) microgrid test bed, part of the GRID-C facility funded by DOE’s Office of the Electric Power.
Other members of the ORNL team working on the Adjuntas microgrids project are Quodong Liu, Aditya Sundararajan, Mohammed M. Olama, and Yang Chen. Additional academic partners include the University of Central Florida and the University of Tennessee.
UT-Battelle operates Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of fundamental research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.
Translation credit: Max Ferrari, ORNL.
Originally published by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
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