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How to grow a microgrid in 3 easy steps

We recently sat down for a chat with Peter Lehman, founding director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University. The Center and the University were part of an academic/vendor/utility team that recently broke ground for a new microgrid in Blue Lake, California. 

Along with PG&E and Siemens, you're working on a microgrid for a Native American reservation. What was the impetus behind Humboldt and Schatz joining that project?

Lehman: Several years ago, we completed a study for the California Energy Commission (CEC) where we looked at the possibility of providing a large fraction of our energy here in Humboldt County from local renewable resources.  Our RePower Humboldt report detailed how we could get 70% of our electricity, 25% of our space heating, and 10% of our transportation fuel from local biomass, wind, solar, wave, and hydropower.  The increase in cost was a modest 5% over business as usual.

When a long-time colleague, Dr. Rob Hovsapian of Idaho National Lab, approached us to suggest this microgrid project, we saw it as an opportunity to implement the vision of RePower Humboldt.  Rob had already spoken to Siemens and they too were interested.  We have worked with the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe for the last several years and the Tribe jumped at the chance to participate in the project to bolster their energy security and increase their use of renewables.  A project was born.

We recruited additional partners including PG&E, Tesla, REC Solar, GHD, and local electrical and civil contractors.  In response to the CEC’s Program Opportunity Notice 14-301, an early solicitation of CEC’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program, we submitted a proposal entitled “Demonstrating a Secure, Reliable, Low-Carbon Community Microgrid at the Blue Lake Rancheria.”  Our $5M proposal received the highest score of all those submitted and we were off and running.

What's the timeline and process for getting the microgrid up and running?

Lehman: Our project started this summer, when the contract was signed by the CEC.  We held a launch event at the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) on August 24, attended by CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas, Congressman Jared Huffman, and HSU President Lisa Rossbacher; the event attracted several hundred people. On October 14, we held our kick-off meeting at BLR.  All project partners attended and the work will now begin in earnest. Design and testing of the microgrid management system will occur during the next 9 months.  Construction will start in January, with the bulk of construction scheduled for the summer.  Commissioning is scheduled to begin in October of 2016, with full operation by the beginning of 2017.  We will collect a year of operational data before the project ends in January of 2018.

What benefits do you expect for the reservation with this microgrid?

Lehman: The Blue Lake Rancheria is a nationally recognized Red Cross shelter. In the event of a natural or other emergency (the North Coast is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and fires), the Rancheria will be called on to shelter a substantial number of local residents.  The microgrid will allow them to disconnect from the larger grid and to provide power almost indefinitely so that residents will be sheltered comfortably and safely.

There are also benefits during normal, blue-sky operation.  With its 500 kW photovoltaic array and 950 kWh storage battery, the microgrid will allow the Rancheria to mange its electrical power to provide demand response and to engage in energy arbitrage.  This will produce a more secure grid as well as accrue financial rewards to the Tribe.  And the PV array will increase the use of renewable energy, lower electricity costs, and reduce carbon emissions.

How does this microgrid work fit into the R&D of your university? What does it bring you?

Lehman: This project fits well with the mission of the Schatz Energy Research Center and plays to our expertise in photovoltaics, batteries, and integrated energy system control.  We have a long history of designing and building real-life, cutting edge demonstration projects and this project fits right in.  

This is also a fabulous opportunity to work with a crack and incredibly diverse team to install the microgrid.  We are a university research center working with a Native American tribe (BLR), our local investor owned utility (PG&E), a national lab (INL), a large, multi-national corporation (Siemens), a large engineering consulting firm (GHD), a battery manufacturer (Tesla), a PV installation company (REC Solar), and local electrical and civil contractors.  What a team!

This work will also be the grist for graduate student projects and theses.  We have two engineering graduate students working with us now and more will join.  Education of tomorrow’s energy leaders is a crucial aspect of what we do.

Tell us more about the Schatz Energy Research Center.

Lehman: The Schatz Center is a research center affiliated with the Environmental Resources Engineering Department at Humboldt State University.  Our mission is to promote clean and renewable energy.  

The Center was formed in 1989 and there are now 37 engineers, scientists, and administrators, including10 graduate and undergraduate students, working at the Center.  

Our initial work was focused on hydrogen and fuel cell technology.  We have licensed our fuel cell intellectual property to four U.S. corporations and in 1998, we introduced the first fuel cell car licensed to drive in the U.S. and built the first hydrogen fueling station in Thousand Palms, CA.  Since then we have broadened our scope considerably.  We work with the World Bank to provide energy access in Africa and Asia and have developed standards and testing protocols for solar lighting and home systems that are used throughout the world.  We are working with multiple partners on a $5.9M DOE project to develop technologies to treat stranded biomass resources and make them economically viable.  And we work to design and install electric vehicle infrastructure, both in California and India.

What advice would you give other universities looking to partner with power industry insiders?

Lehman: The place to start is local.  Microgrids will have an increasing role in how we deliver electric power and every locality will have critical loads that can benefit from a microgrid.  Police and fire stations, hospitals, water and wastewater treatment plants, and other community services are all good candidates for microgrids and that’s where funding will be directed.

Our most crucial and important partner has been PG&E, our local utility.  Over the past few years, we have developed a cordial and cooperative working relationship with PG&E and that has been vital in pursuing this project.  And companies developing microgrid control systems (Siemens is just one) are always interested in new projects to test and improve their products.

Kathleen Wolf Davis's picture

Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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