$39 Million To Bust US Renewable Energy Dam Wide Open

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Quick question: what’s the biggest obstacle holding back renewable energy development in the US? If you guessed the obstacle is orange and tweets all the time, you’re probably not alone. However, that’s not the answer, at least not according to the experts over at a new microgrid test bed called DERConnect, who have just nailed down a $39 million grant from the National Science Foundation to remove the biggest obstacle holding back renewable energy development in the US.

renewable energy microgrid DERs
Buh-bye, fossil fuels: US to get first-of-its kind, plug-and-play renewable energy microgrid test bed to speed the clean power revolution on its way (photo credit: UC San Diego).

So, What Is The Biggest Obstacle Holding Back Renewable Energy?

DERConnect is the brainchild of a team of researchers at the University of California – San Diego. The DER in DERConnect refers to distributed energy resources (DERs) like rooftop solar panels and electric vehicle batteries, which are sprouting up like hotcakes all over the US.

DERs could sprout a lot faster all over the US, except that today’s grid managers are faced with a classic chicken-and-egg situation. DERs still account for a relatively small proportion of electricity generation, and grid managers lack the tools to extrapolate impacts based on the small sample size, so they are reluctant to encourage growth in the DERs field.

DERConnect aims to vaporize that obstacle by taking out all the guesswork. It will provide industry stakeholders and researchers with the nation’s first ever comprehensive test bed for validating autonomous grid operation technologies under a DERs scenario, including stationary energy storage, EV batteries, and building systems as well as distribution management, smart meters, and of course, cybersecurity.

Don’t Look Back, Clean Power May Be Gaining On You

In addition to building a new energy storage testing facility, DERConnect involves more than 2,500 DERs already existing on the UC-San Diego campus microgrid, a dozen or so buildings, and 300 EV charging stations.

With its existing DERs infrastructure and research projects, UC-San Diego already has a massive head start on DERConnect (more on that in a second). The DERConnect team plans to leverage that knowledge base to become a “plug-and-play experience for users with a much larger number of devices, minimal overhead for users in terms of platform readiness, and failsafe system that allows experiments at any time of the day.”

If all goes according to plan, DERConnect will be ready to share with other users by 2025, and not a minute too soon! A massive electric vehicle wave is shaping up to hit the US, the cost of solar power is still going down, the US Department of Energy is hatching schemes to pepper the US with distributed wind turbines and community solar arrays, and that’s just a sampling of the clean tech avalanche pouring down the mountainside toward the sparkling green grid of the future.

Renewable Energy & A Just Transition

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with a just transition, that’s a good question. Way back when the cost of renewable energy was relatively high, many ratepayers paid a premium to claim clean kilowatts from their utilities, or they installed rooftop solar panels or backyard wind turbines. That left low- and middle-income households behind in the dust, especially those living in multi-family buildings.

Clean power costs have come down with the help of new financial instruments, but renewable energy access is still an issue for low- and middle-income households. As part of the solution, policy makers are beginning to zero in on strategies that lean on growing the DERs market, and that dovetails neatly with the DERConnect mission.

Aside from carrying the technology load, the DERConnect team is also reaching into underrepresented communities to recruit a new generation of researchers, engineers, and grid planners with a focus on decarbonizing microgrids. One centerpiece of the effort is a high school outreach program, with the aim of attracting underrepresented engineering students to UC-San Diego’s new Systems Engineering program at the Jacobs School of Engineering and its Halicioglu Data Science Institute. The team is also planning outreach to community college students through Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico.

Another element in the outreach program will be of particular interest to Native American tribes that are challenged by the loss of coal jobs. The Energy Department is already working with tribes to promote clean power and microgrids, and DERConnect will lend its resources to the effort. The aim is to include student trainees as well as adults who are already engaged in planning and constructing microgrids.

Group Hug For US Taxpayers

For all the promises to save coal jobs and pump up US oil and gas output, it sure looks like the current occupant of the Oval Office has opened the door for a rapid transition out of of fossil fuels and into more sustainable forms of energy and chemical products, which just goes to show that you can’t fight the National Science Foundation — at least not yet, anyways.

The National Science Foundation was established by Congress in 1950 as an independent federal entity, tasked with funding for “discovery, learning, innovation and research infrastructure to boost U.S. leadership in all aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and education.”

A quick sampling of achievements funded by NSF includes Doppler radar, the Internet, Web browsers, bar codes, magnetic resonance imaging, ink jet printers, computer-aided design systems, artificial retinas, and tissue engineering, to boot.

It looks like you can add autonomous DERs-enabled microgrids to the list, but NSF is not the only federal agency contributing to the DERConnect project.

Circling back around to that thing about UC-San Diego’s existing DERs knowledge base, the school notes that DERConnect has inherited the experience, talent, and “intellectual backbone” of its three-year NODES project, led by professor Sonia Martinez of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is also co-leading DERConnect.

NODES received a $2.88 million grant from the Energy Department’s high tech funding office ARPA-E, with the goal of developing “transformational grid management and control technologies to facilitate the integration of renewables and DERs, increase operational efficiency and reduce carbon footprint.”

The timing of the ARPA-E grant is of particular interest considering those aforementioned promises to fossil fuel stakeholders. ARPA-E announced the NODES award in December 2015, so it spanned both the Obama and Trump* administrations. DERConnect will expand and amplify the NODES influence far into the next four-year period, regardless of the President’s oft-noted obsession with pulling out the pins from Obama-era programs.

For that matter, UC-San Diego is also involved in perovskite solar cell research partly with the aid of NSF and Energy Department grants. The perovskite solar cell area gathered force during Obama’s term in office and it has continued to gather steam since then.

In the latest development, a UC-San Diego research team has figured out a pathway for pushing the next generation of low cost perovskite solar cells out of the lab and into high volume, fast throughput commercial production, so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

Photo: “The UC San Diego Campus is home to a world renowned microgrid,” 2017 (courtesy of UC San Diego).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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