Former WV DOE EPSCoR program, APERC, to conduct smart grid research with FirstEnergy

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WV Super circuit to demonstrate smart grid in Morgantown

Posted: Dec 20, 2012 12:15 PM EST
Updated: Jan 19, 2013 12:15 PM EST

The smart grid we heard so much about three or four years ago seems a long time coming.

But helping to move it forward is the West Virginia Super Circuit, a smart grid project in Morgantown that’s about to get off the ground.

“We’re getting to the point where we’re starting to cut purchase orders for some of the major equipment,” said Nathan Bard, Super Circuit project manager for partner FirstEnergy.

If “West Virginia Super Circuit” sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because the project was funded by the federal Department of Energy in 2008 but was delayed by some major changes of ownership among project partners. One partner, Allegheny Energy, was bought by FirstEnergy in 2010-11, and another, Augusta Systems of Morgantown, was bought by Intergraph in 2011.

The Super Circuit project, now somewhat reconceived, has two related components.

One is a microgrid: a small generation and distribution grid that can be self-sufficient locally but also operates tied to the utility grid. Microgrids are conceived of as a way of integrating home- or neighborhood-scale generation sources into the larger system and a way of reducing the scope and severity of outages, but they introduce variables that utilities need to understand better.

The Super Circuit microgrid installation — a 160-kilowatt natural gas generator, a 40-kilowatt solar array and a lithium-ion battery that can put out 24 kilowatts of power for two hours, according to Bard, all to be wired into two commercial buildings at Research Ridge technology park in Morgantown — will serve as a laboratory for exploring those variables.

“There’ll be a bunch of different scenarios we can run,” Bard said. “Grid-connected, unconnected, using battery, just using the solar, using solar to charge battery, using the grid to charge the battery.”

The small natural gas generator can provide continuous baseload-style power to the microgrid and will be tied into all those scenarios as well.

The second aspect of the Super Circuit automates distribution. It’s that much-anticipated function of a smart grid that we’ve heard a lot about but haven’t yet experienced, that would send power around grid problems.

The Advanced Power and Electricity Research Center at West Virginia University is providing what Bard called “the brains” behind this component.

“The main idea is to automate some of the switches on the ‘feeder’ that goes from the substation down to the consumers so that, instead of doing manual things, to do them automatically,” explained APERC Director Ali Feliachi. “The intention is to identify the faults quicker and try to restore power to the people who don’t have it, and the objective of this project is to demonstrate some new technologies for that.”

APERC’s role is to develop advanced computer algorithms for re-routing power and to do a proof of concept of the hardware and software in the center’s laboratory before FirstEnergy makes the installation on the grid.

The West Virginia Super Circuit is a good project for FirstEnergy, Bard said.

“It’s good for our business to analyze what’s out there, see what we like about it, see what we don’t like about it, make better educated decisions,” he said.

For him, it’s an interesting project.

“For an engineer, you can get into robotics or digital electronic type stuff and the power industry, it hasn’t been as cutting edge,” he said. “But now with the smart grid and microgrids and that kind of thing, there’s a lot of technology involved and a chance to test out new technologies that we really don’t have a lot of experience with.”

Feliachi said the technology for the smart grid is available and just needs to be demonstrated. APERC’s involvement in that gives WVU students relevant real-world experience.

“For our students to be involved in this type of project, not only working on the theory and the algorithm but to see some of the work they are doing being demonstrated, I think it’s exciting for our them — it’s exciting for us,” he said.

Bard expects the project to begin purchasing major equipment in January and to have everything up and running in 2013, with results in 2014.