How 3Tier Wind Forecasts Enable the Northwest Smart Grid

11/13/12Follow @bromano

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to make more efficient use of renewable energy generation and reduce the costs of its integration—a challenge that will grow as wind and solar become an increasingly significant part of the nation’s electricity infrastructure. The $178 million Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project—led by Battelle in collaboration with the BPA and funded with $89 million in federal stimulus from the Department of Energy, which is matched or exceeded by the participants—is testing that promise with data to be collected during the next two years.

The fundamental challenge of the power grid is keeping supply and demand in balance. The supply of electricity used to be easily controllable with generation at dams and coal plants that can be turned up or down to accommodate the somewhat random, yet predictable fluctuations in demand. Today and in the future, as more renewable energy is added to the grid, electricity supply is less controllable. (3Tier didn’t conjure the mid-October storm front that jacked up wind generation; it just predicted it.)

With smart grid, the demand or “load” side of the equation can be throttled up or down, too, adjusting power consumption in response to changing conditions, such as a spike in wind generation. When the smart grid signals utilities that power is relatively cheap, intelligent devices can react to that incentive in a way that benefits the broader system. In response to a low price signal, water heaters turn on, smart buildings rev up the HVAC system, and battery storage units begin charging, or vice versa.

“We have now the means to engage loads, to have loads be an active part of the system rather than a passive part of the system,” Ron Melton, director of the smart grid project, tells me from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated by Battelle in Richland. “This fundamentally changes our challenge in operating the power system.”

Smart grid project director Melton

The project involves 11 utilities and 60,000 electrical meters in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, making it unique in the world in scope and in its ambition of coordinating demand and supply within and across multiple geographically dispersed utilities.

“There’s no other project that I’m aware of in the world that’s trying to provide this mechanism—a smart grid application layer, if you will—that pulls together the ability of coordinating responses across multiple utilities in a region to provide a regional benefit,” says Melton, who presented the project at international smart grid conferences in China and France earlier this year.

Other technology vendors include IBM (NYSE: IBM), its 2010 acquisition Netezza, QualityLogic, and Alstom Grid, which built models of the regional power system.

Those models take forecast inputs from 3Tier for wind generation and from the BPA and elsewhere on other aspects of the current and future state of the system, computing the cost of power delivered to each utility based on its location in the power system.

3Tier’s Storck says the company did not have to make major adjustments to its forecasts for the smart grid project. He and others argue that the technologies underlying the smart grid are mature. The challenges that remain—and they are substantial—are around technology integration and proving the value of the smart grid.

“If the value is there, then I think this can scale up, not just in the U.S., but there’s other projects all throughout the world,” Storck says, pointing to the potential of new business for the 60-person company.

Indeed, 3Tier’s focus is … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] Follow @bromano

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