Universities Are the Perfect Fit for Microgrids

Many universities have built microgrids in the past few years, including University of California San Diego, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Illinois Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And that’s just counting those in the U.S.

The most commonly accepted version of a microgrid is an electrical system that includes multiple loads and distributed energy resources that can be operated in parallel with the broader utility or as an electrical island. Microgrids have a number of benefits, not just at university campuses. They protect a power system from outages, encourage economic growth and job creation, increase energy efficiency and even generate revenue from payments of ancillary services given the right electricity market.

The case for building a microgrid at a university is particularly strong. Many campuses have medical facilities and ongoing high-tech research. Both of these activities require backup power sources and moreover a high power quality factor. A deficiency in electricity supply or perfect wave power can stop an experiment in its tracks, or worse, stop a piece of medical equipment from keeping someone alive. Moreover, in many instances an entire university represents a single customer of a utility and its facilities department operates the distribution system. This allows the campus to be an easy sandbox for experimentation and bypass many state regulations about interconnection agreements with the utility and having distribution systems cross public right of ways.

There is one more supreme reason for universities (and even community colleges) to invest in microgrids, though: student education and workforce training. While a college is a place where people live and work, its first purpose is a place of learning. The electricity grid of the U.S. and other nations is being revolutionized by smart-grid technology and an increasing portion of the workforce, whether they be electrical power system engineers or electricians, will be needed to build, operate, and maintain public and private electricity grids. The fact that the electrical grid in the U.S. was built largely in the decades following World War II means that many utility employees will be retiring in the coming years. This fact compounds the need for increased student interest in electrical power systems.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that other universities are not aware of this fact, the GridSTAR Center operated at the Philadelphia Navy Yard serves as a model for education and training that other microgrids may wish to replicate. The GridSTAR Center is operated by Penn State University with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. It is intended to serve as a national center for energy research, education and commercialization. Industry partners like Lutron, Eaton, CertainTeed, Solar Grid Storage and more are showcasing photovoltaic roofing, fiberglass and spray insulation, wireless lighting controls, off-grid power equipment, and new inverter and battery designs.

GridSTAR facilitates:

    • Online courses for a professional Masters Degree in renewable energy and sustainability systems
    • Online courses for National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
    • Short online courses in Modern Smart Grid Solutions
    • Loaning of equipment and training materials to other colleges and local community colleges

To quote Kofi Annan, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Universities and college campus management have the opportunity presently to make a great impact on the state of microgrid research and knowledge by using their own institutions to educate the next generation of microgrid industry leaders.

About the Author

Ryan Franks
Ryan Franks is technical program manager for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), the association of electrical equipment and medical imaging manufacturers. Founded in 1926 and headquartered in Rosslyn, Va., its 400-plus member companies manufacture a diverse set of products used in the generation, transmission, distribution, and end use of electricity and medical diagnostic imaging.

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