An electric exchange of minds

Dominion Virginia Power and State Grid Corporation of China representatives visit VCU to share results of a microgrid collaboration

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Representatives from the largest electric utilities company in the world visited the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering late last month to share and discuss results of the university’s collaborative microgrid project with Dominion Virginia Power.

As president of the United States Representative Office for the State Grid Corporation of China, Kai Xie, Ph.D., who visited along with colleagues Liang Qi and Junyu Wang, is familiar with distributed generation technology.

“SGCC is really the centralized utility that does transmission/distribution application throughout 90 percent of China,” said Phil Powell, director of grid innovations at Dominion Virginia Power. “Dr. Xie is the president of the group that does outside research. They do a lot of work with other countries, including the Philippines. So he’s telling us about that, and we’re talking to him about both our Edge technology here and things we’re doing at Dominion as well. “

Despite Xie’s extensive research resume, Sean Brasch, staff mechanical engineer with VCU’s Physical Plant, believes there was plenty to share and learn during the visit.

“What Xie did was really high scale, high voltages – I worried he might view this as unimpressive or unimportant, but I don’t think he’d done anything on a small scale like we’d done here,” Brasch said. “I don’t know if they’d even thought to do this on a small scale.“

As for what a microgrid is, imagine a typical building on campus. Each day, it requires electricity to heat and cool it; to power lights and computers; to turn on projectors, regulate incubators and power lasers in labs -- not to mention the juice needed to supply ample wall outlets for laptops and smartphone chargers.

Energy for all of those needs buzzes through the building on a constant basis, even when chargers are not plugged into walls or a laser stands idle after a day of burning its way through steel.

The microgrid connected to VCU’s School of Engineering(SOE) West Hall works to monitor all of these daily voltage uses and then decides how much energy is actually needed from Dominion Power’s main grid. It’s able to draw only what is needed on a daily basis by shutting off the power to unused wall outlets at night as well as vending machines or empty classrooms.

Zhifang Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was on hand to help guide the tour with Brasch and Jay Bell, utility master electrician.

Beginning with three large green voltage regulators, sitting along the southeast corner of the building’s property, Wang spoke to the visitors about the results of a microgrid electric load analysis and forecasting project that her class, “Introduction to Power Grid and Smart Grid,” finished this past spring after a year of studying the system.

“We analyzed and modeled the SOE West Hall's electric load data, as well as the data from a bulk power grid obtained from the United Kingdom national grid,” Wang said. “Our research revealed the strong correlation between the microgrid electric load and the local weather; and we recognized three different types of daily electric load patterns in an institutional microgrid, i.e., weekdays, weekends and holidays. We then proposed a novel forecast model based on our analysis to expedite the computation and improve the forecasting accuracy. Compared with the load forecast of a bulk system, forecasting microgrid electric load is much more challenging due to the intermittent fluctuations within its dynamic profiles.”

The voltage regulators take a high voltage from Dominion’s distribution grid and raise and lower the voltage prior to the electric lines entering the building’s transformer. The regulators receive their commands from a main switch gear room in the basement of the hall, which houses three computers -- one that reads information from Meter Intelligence Module sensors throughout the building, a second that processes this information and sends it to the third computer, which uses Dominion’s Edge technology to then adjust the voltage regulators.

Further refinement of the process is done through well more than 100 Greenlet outlet monitors that measure amp usage and are programmable to be turned off and on through a secure web interface.

Once all of this data is collected, electrical use in the building becomes an intelligent system that can regulate output on a minute-by-minute basis in order to eliminate waste. It’s a lot of data to monitor, but it’s the key to creating an efficient network that can save significant costs in the long run.

For Dominion, the partnership with VCU acts as a real-time laboratory to test and optimize this technology before distributing it on a large-scale basis to other institutions, communities and military bases around the state. The fact that the collaboration attracted industry attention on an international scope is testament to VCU’s commitment to research as part of its Quest for Distinction.

Wang believes the men from SGCC took away a lot regarding the benefits of an industry and institutional collaboration in this field.

“Our smart-grid-related research progress on the platform impressed the visitors very much,” Wang said. “SGCC is state-owned and one of the largest utility companies in the world. They intend to make full use of advanced technology, adopt a modernized management system and realize a higher level of internationalization. They appreciated the industry-university collaborative effort of Dominion and VCU.”


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