New Mexico Tech Will Use Village of Playas To Study Electrical Grid, April 29, 2008

by Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., April 29, 2008 -- The U.S. Department of Energy announced Monday that New Mexico Tech and the University of Hawaii were selected to conduct a three-year research project studying the effect of renewable energy on existing electrical distribution grids.

The project will use the self-contained village of Playas in the bootheel of New Mexico, which is owned by New Mexico Tech and operated as a research and training facility.

The Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii will lead the project, which will examine ways to increase efficiency in energy infrastructure and use of renewable energy sources. The Department of Energy is contributing $7 million to the project. Another $8 million will come from industry partners, including General Electric, Hawaiian Electric Co., Maui Electric Co., Columbus Electric Cooperative, Sentech and UPC Wind.

Tech vice president of research and economic development Van Romero said Hawaii and New Mexico have a natural connection.

“We both have clumps of population surrounded by empty spaces,” Romero said. “In New Mexico, it’s desert. In Hawaii, it’s ocean. So our grids look similar.”

Romero said both states have ample supplies of renewable energy sources. Both states have tremendous potential for generating electricity from solar, wind and geothermal sources. Incorporating renewable energy into existing power grids creates challenges for electric companies.

“We are learning that the inconsistencies in renewable energy can have adverse effects on the stability of the power grid,” Romero said. “We will use Playas to test how this distributed energy affects the overall power grid.”

Playas will serve as a test facility for the new technologies and new systems.

Don Weinkauf, chemical engineering professor at New Mexico Tech, said Playas provides researchers with a perfect platform for comparisons.

“Playas is a unique opportunity because we don’t have any other live grids that we have control over,” he said. “We’ll use it as a test bed for companies to come in and put significant percentages of renewable energies on the grid.”

Playas was a town of more than 256 homes on 640 acres built by Phelps-Dodge mining company. After the smelter shut down in the 1990s, the university bought the entire town to use as a training academy for law enforcement and military personnel.

Tech researchers, working with GE engineers, will be able to manipulate the supply of non-traditional energy to the homes, offices and other buildings in Playas, Romero said. Through these tests, researchers aim to devise methods and devices that will minimize the fluctuations on the grid.

Scientists from Tech and GE Global Research will install a diverse array of energy devices – conventional solar, photovoltaics, conventional diesel and wind – to study the effect on the grid.

“We’ll be able to shut off and turn on the power at will to see how the grid will react,” Weinkauf said. “Playas is big enough to point toward how a larger grid will react.”

University and industry researchers – including Tech students – will examine various components of the grid to optimize performance. A main component will be the software used to control the electrical output, Weinkauf said. Other important disciplines will include electrical and mechanical engineering.

Once developed and tested in Playas, the project will demonstrate a control and energy management distribution system on a larger scale. The goals are to maximize renewable energy sources, improve energy storage and develop systems of on-demand distribution.

The university is in the process of formalizing contracts with contractors.

“Various companies will help us set up the grid,” Weinkauf said. “Ultimately, we will develop models to predict what happens on the grid. Second, we will test and validate new pieces of equipment and control platforms that can manage or optimize the use of renewable energy on the grid.”

The deployment of this distribution management system will provide improved reliability and power quality by addressing concerns such as energy grid congestion, energy reserves and intermittent power supplies.