The village of Oak Park, a suburb west of Chicago, was recently selected from a list of competing volunteer neighborhoods to be the test site for smart grid technology.
The project is a joint venture between the Korean Smart Grid Institute and the Institute for Sustainable Energy Development, and will involve placing a set of twelve or thirteen 3-kilowatt solar panels, along with a battery system, on the roofs of 100 residential and 100 multifamily buildings. They’ll also all be linked up to an electrical grid boasting smart meters, and once the test run of the system is over the building owners will get to keep the installations, worth $20,000 to $30,000 a pop.
Oak Park’s sustainability manager, K.C. Poulos, sat down with Grist for an interview about the project that ran on Friday. The hope, as she put it, is to demonstrate new ways to generate, transmit, and use electricity — providing greater efficiencies, lower costs to consumers, and hopefully the seed bed for a more sustainable energy economy:
[The Korean Smart Grid Institute] did the demonstration on an island in South Korea called Jeju Island. It’s kind of like their Hawaii — it’s a resort area. They were able to put up a demonstration that showed how distributed generation like solar can be connected to a network operations center. All of these houses got battery storage so when you weren’t using your solar power in the house, you could store it in a battery system. When the grid on that island became overloaded with demand, the network operating system could send messages to those households saying, “You need to use to your battery. We’re going to take all of the energy from your solar panels for the next four hours and put them right on the grid. And then we will send you a check next month. Thank you very much for letting us buy your power for four hours.” [...]
The [scenario for Oak Park homeowners] we talk about the most is this idea of collecting the solar energy during the day and storing it in the battery and then having the house run on the battery at night so you’re completely offline at night and the battery provides a phantom load — your clocks, TV. Your energy load is pretty low at night but that means you’re not taking anything off the grid. So you’re reducing your bill right there.
Then let’s say there’s an outage in your neighborhood. What we want these systems to be able to do is operate off the battery so these houses can stay somewhat energized. It’s only a three kilowatt system on the house so it’s not like you could have every appliance running at the same time. You’ll have enough for lights, fans, and the refrigerator or A/C. But at least you’re online still and you’re not losing an entire freezer of meat. [...]
The [average number of outages] for Oak Park is 45 minutes per year. What the number doesn’t tell you about is the stories I hear when [residents] call up on day three of still not having power. Then I get calls from restaurants. You’re talking about an entire week’s or month’s inventory gone.
The total bill for the project will be $5 to $6 million, though Oak Park itself will not have to pay the tab. Half the cost will be covered by the South Korean research institute, and the other by the ISED’s efforts to secure government funding. Oak Park’s residents are instead agreeing to participate in the project, to allow workers to set up the installations on their homes, and to allow data about their power usage to be gathered and transmitted digitally for further study and development of the technology. The information will be collected as an aggregate in order to help protect individuals’ privacy, and to keep the experiment consumer-oriented.
As with other smart grid systems, the Oak Park project will allow for two way communication between consumers and the grid hub, which will lessen the chances of outages and help improve efficiency of energy use.