Opportunity Abounds as Washington Builds the Modern Electricity Grid

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as an idea of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Regional Education Training Center (RETC), located adjacent to the project site. The RETC, a nonprofit with operations in Richland and Olympia, collaborates with labor, utilities, businesses, and other organizations to offer hands-on competency-based training to incumbent workers, Robert Topping, executive director of the RETC in Richland, says via e-mail.

Those groups brought the project to Energy Northwest, a joint operating agency of 27 public utility districts that also runs power projects including the Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant, to develop further and tap state funds. (Only utilities can apply for grid modernization grants from the CEF, and they must match state dollars at least one for one.) The project’s CEF grant is $3 million, Young says. The total project cost has yet to be determined.

The project consists of a 4 megawatt solar array to be built by Sumner, WA-based energy services company Potelco, and a flow battery storage system, capable of storing 4 megawatt hours of energy. (One megawatt of solar can provide enough energy to power about 164 average American homes, though the exact amount varies depending on location, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.)

The solar and storage combination will allow the plant to produce a predictable flow of zero-emissions electricity. Also, the battery enables a host of modern grid operations—such as demand response, electricity arbitrage, peak demand reduction, and stability—at the city of Richland’s municipal utility, which is the potential customer for the project, says project manager Clint Gerkensmeyer of Energy Northwest, pictured at top.  [The previous two paragraphs were updated to indicate that the battery vendor and customer for the project have not yet been finalized.]

“It’s very unique,” Gerkensmeyer says of the project and its combination of large-scale solar, energy storage, and an explicit focus on training. “We’re only going to get more and more storage on the grid. As we rely more on renewables, more storage is going to be required in order to make those renewables fit the energy patterns.”

Horn Rapids’ greatest promise may be the people who will gain expertise in these technologies, equipping them to build the modern grid of the future.

“As we continue on, this technology is going to become more ingrained, and hence you’ll need a work force to maintain and operate it,” Gerkensmeyer says.

The RETC is developing a specialty curriculum connected to the project to provide electricians and utility workers with hands-on training in solar and energy storage plant siting, construction, operations, cyber and physical security, and maintenance, Topping says.

Researchers in the control room at the UW Clean Energy Institute’s Washington Clean Energy Testbeds. Photo by Matt Hagen for UW Clean Energy Institute, used with permission.

Once operational, sometime in late 2018 or early 2019, a dedicated high-speed communications link from the project will stream data back to researchers at PNNL, who are at the forefront of designing operational structures for the modern grid. It will also link to universities across the state, including the UW’s Clean Energy Institute, where a campus control center in the new Washington Clean Energy Testbeds facility today allows students to get a feel for managing the UW’s microgrid. (A microgrid is a system to optimize energy use, and often production as well, in a small area, such as a university campus or neighborhood. UW’s microgrid is joined, through the transactive control signals developed during the smart grid demonstration project, to similar microgrids at Washington State University and PNNL, allowing them to act in concert and manage energy use in response to the needs of the broader system.)

“This is an example of how, on campus, our Testbeds are plugging into this vision of grid modernization so that we can train people to be ready for it,” Schwartz says.

Foreign Investment, Export Opportunity

The market for these technologies within Washington itself is small compared to states such as California and New York, which have more acute problems on their electricity grids and are deploying large amounts of energy storage to help solve them, Young says. (The Pacific Northwest, it should be noted, has been a leader in energy storage on a massive scale for decades. That storage just happens to be in the form of water held in reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams.)

Through CEF-backed projects brought online in recent years, Washington companies have bolstered … Next Page »

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