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NSF awards UCSD team $39M to improve integration of distributed energy resources into grid; EV batteries also

The National Science Foundation has awarded $39 million to a team of engineers and computer scientists at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) to build a first-of-its-kind testbed—DERConnect—to improve the understanding of how to integrate distributed energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, smart buildings and electric vehicle batteries into the power grid. The goal is to make the testbed available to outside research teams and industry by 2025.

Industry partners include Johnson Controls and Sunspec Alliance.

The major driver for the project is the need to decarbonize the electrical grid, protect it from cybersecurity attacks and make it more resilient. To provide 50%—or more—of power from clean energy sources, power grids will have to be able to leverage distributed energy sources, and reliably manage dynamic changes, while minimizing impact on customer quality of service.

We will be replicating the entire California power grid on one campus.

—Jan Kleissl, the project’s principal investigator

DERConnect will address an outstanding national need for large-scale testing capabilities across universities, national labs, industry, utility companies and Independent System Operators to validate future technologies for autonomous energy grids in real-word scenarios. A major current obstacle to the adoption of such technologies in the operations of real energy systems is the development of realistic test cases on a realistic scale.

Most utilities struggle with the fact that renewable and distributed energy sources are not as stable as traditional sources, such as natural-gas power plants. Solar panel output depends on the weather, for example, as do wind turbines. At the other end of the grid, electric vehicles need charging for only a certain amount of time every day, and when not in use could be used as temporary batteries to store energy from renewables.

As a result, while the number and diversity of distributed energy resources on the power grid is rapidly expanding, the adoption of these resources for power-grid balancing is hindered by concerns about safety, reliability and cost.

Offering utilities, researchers, industry and other entities a testbed with real-world communications challenges is essential to solve these problems and develop new distributed control theories, algorithms, and applications. The envisioned testbed is built upon a number of technical innovations at UC San Diego that create a microgrid encompassing distributed energy resources, including energy storage, electrical vehicles and independent electrical and thermal systems in buildings. This distributed system is monitored and controlled by computing and networking systems that make it accessible to local and remote researchers as a programmable platform.

DERConnect will include more than 2,500 distributed energy resources, or DERs, on the campus’ microgrid, with its fuel cell and solar panels, a dozen classroom and office buildings, as well as 300 charging stations for electric vehicles. It will also entail the construction of a new energy storage testing facility on the East Campus.

An upgrade to the microgrid will give researchers real-time control over heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, lighting, solar panels, battery storage and EVs.

Researchers hope to be able to begin testing their equipment in 2022.

DERConnect will be the first integrated platform in the United States that matches the needed experimental evaluation and validation for the implementation of DER technologies, protocols, and standards. A wide range of smart grid implementation use cases and testing procedures will be established to provide controlled laboratory evaluations of DER control algorithms, emerging technologies, and protocols in areas such as distributed and renewable energy integration, energy storage systems, advanced distribution management, advanced metering infrastructure, and cybersecurity.

DERConnect will be able to explore which architectures and corresponding resource aggregation approaches allow consumers and grid operators to adapt their operations to achieve significant improvements in system-wide operational cost and renewables integration.

UC San Diego is building on experience from NODES, a three-year, $2.88 million grant from ARPA-E, led by Sonia Martinez, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is also the Co-PI on DERConnect. NODES’ aim was to develop transformational grid management and control technologies to facilitate the integration of renewables and DERs, increase operational efficiency and reduce carbon footprint.

NODES involved the same research team and constitutes the intellectual backbone of DERConnect in the development and preliminary testing of algorithms for decentralized control of DERs. The testing carried out at the UC San Diego microgrid was among the most successful ones due to the number of devices, their diversity, and the alignment with real-world operating conditions. Building on this experience, DERConnect strives to be a plug-and-play experience for users with a much larger number of devices, minimal overhead for users in terms of platform readiness, and failsafe system that allows experiments at any time of the day.


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