As a growing number of Americans install solar panels with plans to send excess solar energy back to the grid, keeping the nation’s energy grid reliable and affordable for all customers becomes more challenging. The need to accelerate the modernization of the nation’s energy grid has become a priority for the U.S. Department of Energy and for energy providers, including Gulf Power.
That’s why Gulf Power is working with a team of utilities, universities and contractors on an Electric Power Research Institute-led project focused on overcoming the challenges of adding more and more solar energy onto the grid. Results of the project could also mean benefits for non-solar customers.
The three-year research project, “SHINES” –– Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar photovoltaic (PV) –– is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative , Southern Company and Gulf Power. The team will integrate solar PV systems and energy storage at three test sites across the country.
“As we get more solar on the grid, the challenge will be how to maintain an efficient, reliable, and low-cost system for the rest of the customers,” said Kimberly Blair, Gulf Power spokesperson. “The challenges come from the variability and unpredictability of solar.”
Testing in our backyard
Two side-by-side Pensacola homes have been selected as one of three demonstration sites to test the new and integrated technology solution for residential use. The homes have similar energy-consumption loads and are at the end of a distribution line, which can be more prone to voltage fluctuations.
The technology installed in the homes is being designed to provide customers more cost-effective battery storage for solar systems and provide the most benefit from the power they’re generating. It will also help minimize voltage fluctuations that happen when cloud shadows move across solar panels which can impact all customers on its distribution lines.
“These homes will be the first to integrate photovoltaic systems, smart home technology, and weather forecasting equipment,” said Blair. “For the first time, we’re combining components together into a complete system where everything operates in unison.”
Excess solar generated from the customers’ two homes will be stored in the battery. The battery will then send energy to the homes to fill in the energy dips caused by the day’s weather or use patterns, and continue to provide reliable energy to the homes.
“It eliminates the variability of energy produced when cloud shadows pass over the systems, a variability that happens second-by-second,” Blair said. “It can handle problems for other customers on that same line.”
Lisa Holmes is one of the homeowners participating in the research. A native of Ireland, she studied renewable energy while earning an industrial engineer degree in Germany. She was thrilled to be able to get solar panels installed on her home, something she’s wanted for some time, and to participate in furthering solar technology in the United States.
“When my neighbor asked me if I’d be interested in participating, I jumped on it,” she said of the owner of the other test house. “This is the future.”
Smarter than ever
Another piece of the research is installing smart technology that allows a controller to adjust the homes’ energy usage –– cooling and heating systems, pool pumps, water heaters –– to sync better with the solar generation.
“Most solar is generated when the customer is not home, in the middle of the day while they’re at work,” Blair said. “The advantage for customers is they get to use more of their solar and there’s less impact on the grid.”
Blair explained that the controller will prepare the home for approaching clouds that will cause solar generation to drop or even stop.
“It can adjust the operation of certain types of appliances to modify their energy consumption levels before the clouds approach and during the cloud coverage, and return them to their normal operation after the clouds pass,” she said. “This way, customers get the most out of their solar generation. It’s a really advanced, smart home.”
For now, to install enough battery capacity to run beyond a day of cloudy skies is cost-prohibitive for many homeowners, upwards of $75,000. For this reason, nearly 95 percent of the solar users in the Gulf Power service footprint are still dependent on the energy grid.
Five other SHINES research projects led by utilities and universities are working on similar projects aimed at resolving challenges to creating integrated PV energy storage solutions.
Blair pointed out that in the end, customers will be the winners with new, tested programs and products that will support the integration of hundreds of gigawatts of reliable and cost-effective solar power on the energy grid.
“Photovoltaic solar technology is well-vetted,” Blair said. “The SHINES project will help us identify what works well, and where opportunities lie for improved battery performance.”