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Creating a microgrid showpiece

Panasonic Eco Solutions Canada has created a complete microgrid showpiece-complemented by a rooftop solar power system-for the Clean Energy Research Lab at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Dependable and affordable power in both normal and emergency operating conditions is becoming a growing concern, particularly in areas with aging electrical infrastructure and escalating power prices and where more intermittent alternative power sources are being integrated into power grids.

One need look no further than the frequent snow and ice storms along the eastern seaboard in the United States and in central Canada, where thousands are often left without power for extended periods of time, to truly understand the vital role that power plays to avoid life threatening situations and property damage in many jurisdictions.

The ability to strategically plug in battery-powered, autonomous or islanded microgrids shows tremendous potential as a tool in the arsenal of power utilities to ensure that the lights stay on at an affordable price in both normal and emergency operating conditions.

Panasonic Eco Solutions Canada has partnered with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and the Ontario Ministry of Energy on a microgrid project on the UOIT campus. Through their Smart Grid program, the Ministry provided funding support to develop and implement a complete microgrid solution called the Microgrid Research and Innovation Park for the Clean Energy Research Lab (CERL) located on UOIT's campus in Oshawa, Ontario. Panasonic owns the project but will offer it to UOIT after five years. One half of the project funding was provided by Ontario's Smart Grid Fund while Panasonic contributed the remainder.

Completion and successful commissioning of this project was a significant accomplishment since the system literally had to be designed from the ground up, as there are no global microgrid standards. This system was designed and implemented using International Electrical Engineering Standard IEEE1547 on distributed generation.

While the entire microgrid system will have an ongoing role to provide seamless uninterrupted power to the CERL building and function as a living laboratory and learning tool for UOIT electrical engineering faculty and students, Panasonic's definite goal is to use what it has learned from this project as well as the prototype itself as a stepping stone to offering a complete microgrid solution as a commercial product. It has been fully tested.

Warna Hettiarachchi, manager of Energy Storage and Microgrid Technology at Panasonic Eco Solutions Canada, says the company launched project development three years ago. During that time, it has learned a lot and developed viable industrial and commercial energy storage microgrid platforms for application in a variety of scenarios, including electric companies, commercial and industrial enterprises, and communities.


"For example, many local electric utilities have aging infrastructure, and their networks often experience voltage sagging and frequency anomalies in power supply phases with more renewable energy added to the grid and loads reaching maximum capacity on feeders," says Hettiarachchi. "So a battery storage-based microgrid can discharge required amounts of power into the grid to offset the voltage fluctuation or frequency change and thereby stabilize the grid as regulation service."

Another potential application is in remote communities that have invested in solar power production, which is limited to daytime hours.

"We could use a battery system to store excess solar generation during the daytime and use part of that during the evening peak to sustain that community," says Hettiarachchi.

He adds that there are also critical load applications of this energy storage technology for industries that have a critical path of production. Industries that could find this seamless power transition technology useful are pharmaceutical companies' nuclear isotope production labs, the aerospace industry, and precision manufacturing and processing industries with sensitive computerized equipment.

"A small fluctuation in grid power can really offset the tolerances in these products," says Hettiarachchi, "or an outage can completely disrupt a certain process, meaning that they have to start over and potentially scrap millions of dollars worth of partially processed raw materials."

However, a battery storage microgrid system, and by extension, a solar-powered, battery storage microgrid system, could act as a buffer to avoid fluctuations or outages, thereby potentially saving companies reliant on consistent power a lot of money.

Panasonic supplied an autonomous battery energy storage system (BESS) consisting of a 500-kW/kWhr Lithium-ion battery-powered, microgrid product to the UOIT project. Complementing the BESS are a 50-kWp rooftop solar PV generation system, a battery management system, and an energy management system that consists of all the technology and controls needed to keep the batteries optimally charged, monitor grid power fluctuations, and predict future power consumption trends. This includes a microgrid controller provided by General Electric, a forecasting engine, and automated switching gear so that it can be used for what is known as peak-shaving to reduce electricity costs. But its dual role is to act as an emergency power backup system to ensure that the CERL building is never without power. Consistent power supply to the CERL building is critical because they have internal research projects and systems, such as their hydrogen isotope production lab, that would be impacted if there was a power interruption.

 The University of Ontario Institute of Technology project features a number of breakthroughs. Panasonic, with assistance from suppliers and project collaborators, has implemented an innovative 'fast switch' to switch between the grid power supply to the microgrid in a matter of only 50 milliseconds or less.

Panasonic says that the ability of a microgrid equipped with an intelligent forecasting engine that takes historical weather and price data, gathers real-time weather, generation, and storage data, and hourly Ontario energy price (HOEP) energy pricing to predict most economical battery charging and discharge times, is a microgrid capability that did not, to the best of Panasonic's knowledge, previously exist in Canada at the time of project concept and design. As a cost-saving measure, the system is designed so that battery charging through the power grid occurs when there is low power demand.

This is only one of a number of breakthroughs that were achieved with this project. For example, Panasonic, with assistance from suppliers and project collaborators, has implemented an innovative 'fast switch' to switch between the grid power supply to the microgrid in a matter of only 50 milliseconds or less. The company says that this achievement will be significant by way of establishing a key metric that can be referenced in defining seamless power transition for microgrids.

The microgrid has the ability to provide emergency power for 2.5 hours, and in another first, it is linked to the existing 2.4-megawatt (MW) natural gas combined heat and power (CHP) backup system. It was modified to black start that system using the BESS should an extended power failure occur. This is important as UOIT is designated as an emergency shelter by the province. Panasonic says that to the best of its knowledge, this is the first time that a battery storage-based microgrid system has been designed to work in concert with a CHP backup system in situations where emergency power is required.

Completion and successful commissioning of the microgrid project was a significant accom-plishment since the system literally had to be designed from the ground up, as there are no global microgrid standards. 

In addition to the CHP system, the microgrid is also linked to a new rooftop 50-kW solar power production system supplied by Panasonic Eco Solutions that is capable of providing the CERL building with power in both normal and emergency power situations. At times when the CERL building is experiencing high power costs due to high demand, the system has the ability to monitor and predict when that demand will occur and can supplement power demand from the solar power system.

Panasonic experienced several challenges integrating this innovative microgrid system into the existing electrical infrastructure at the UOIT campus. There were many instances where extra capital spending and work-around solutions were required to replace and update existing electrical infrastructure so that the tie-in of the microgrid could meet project expectations.

Another goal of the micro-grid was to provide maximum automation to facilitate autonomous operation and to accomplish this objective, select manual switchgear on the UOIT's campus were replaced with motorized versions and integrated to the microgrid controller.

Panasonic discovered that the existing CHP backup system did not have its black start capability fully configured and implemented when the project got started. Therefore, project engineers needed to build this capability into the CHP system, and this effort was not part of the original project scope. Engineers also had to bypass a high-power-demanding wind tunnel vehicle testing facility so that it wouldn't cause a major power draw from the microgrid and trip the system.

Finally, the microgrid had to be designed so that there was a seamless transition back to synchronizing itself with the power grid once the grid supply was back on line.

In terms of construction, the goal was to achieve minimal site disturbance; therefore, no site excavation was required as the 40' BESS container was placed on piles located in an empty gravel yard.

In terms of market potential for this technology, Hettiarachchi says there has been a surge in demand for energy storage assets, with one of the driving forces being the cost of power, particularly during peak periods. Panasonic's microgrid technology not only has the potential for load displacement for large power consumers during peak periods, it also includes technology that can predict when those peak periods will occur so that the load displacement from the microgrid occurs in a timely, cost-saving manner.

"When we compare industry's expectations of capital cost per kilowatt hour, we can say that we have come pretty close or on par with industry's expectations of where prices need to be," says Hettiarachchi. "With our level of involvement, with our technology partners, and with the financial package we can put together as a wrap, we are able to offer a complete, end-to-end, cost-effective, turnkey solution, including full EPC."

He says that Panasonic intends to tour many potential clients through its UOIT showpiece.

"There are many out there who claim to know about microgrids but have done it only on paper or using a computer simulation program," Hettiarachchi says. "But we have completed this project successfully and can provide a realistic model for commercial offerings."