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There are organizations and individuals who are using the principles of Reinventing Fire to make money and gain durable advantage in their industry.

Electricity: UCSD Microgrid

Local impact, national influence, and global reach. These are the goals that the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) strives for in its academic and research programs. With passionate leaders such as Byron Washom, UCSD’s first director of strategic energy initiatives, UCSD is making good on these aspirations. The University has created an experimental microgrid, which balances and optimizes electricity production, consumption, and storage with state-of-the-art control systems. Dubbed the “living laboratory,” UCSD’s microgrid may become the model for a new utility paradigm of the future.

Foreshadowing the important role that energy management would play at UCSD, the Central Utilities Building was the first structure built after the University’s founding in 1960. Today, UCSD is striving to become a zero-waste campus by 2020, and all new campus buildings are constructed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver or gold standard. Yet, UCSD’s leadership in electricity may have some of the greatest impact on the world. Its experimental microgrid offers a unique combination of software and hardware that takes advantage of advances in information technology (IT) and demand-side technologies and is enabling powerful applications in bidirectional power flow, distributed intelligence and operational control.

The heart of the UCSD energy system is its energy management control system. It controls UCSD’s central cogeneration plant, as well as a set of photovoltaic systems. In addition, the management system is intricately connected to most major loads on campus. With the push of a button, loads can be reduced or shut off completely. Though invisible to the majority of campus residents and visitors, this vital balancing of generation and demand becomes an extremely powerful tool to save costs and drive higher reliability. During emergency events, for instance, a microgrid may disconnect and operate in islanded mode. When the rest of the grid may be threatened with loss of power, UCSD is able to significantly reduce campus demand (by turning down its 4,000 non-critical thermostats by a few imperceptible degrees) and increase on-site generation to maintain its critical operations. When wildfires threatened the local power infrastructure in 2009, for instance, UCSD not only kept its own critical loads on, but it also helped to support the local grid from going down as well.

UCSD’s work with the intermittency of its distributed generation is breaking new ground as well. The output of major renewable energy sources like solar fluctuate with the weather. Integrating these sources into conventional grid operations adds variability and uncertainty to the system. As a result, UCSD’s Associate Professor Jan Kleissl is working with Washom to develop an optimal solar forecasting method to better integrate solar energy into its energy portfolio. If successful, UCSD’s microgrid will serve as a model for future grids that may need to accommodate higher penetrations of solar energy. Moving forward, Washom has plans to incorporate additional electricity storage capabilities as well as electric vehicle charging stations, simulating a new layer of complexity that future grids will have to face.

UCSD is a small component of the grid, but its IT and demand-side solutions may have larger implications for the entire grid. If Washom’s experiment is successful, UCSD’s microgrid may enable a new paradigm of utility operation where microgrids are woven throughout the nation’s electricity system.