It Takes A Solar Village To Test A Microgrid

Old Solar Decathlon houses don’t die; they gather together to form a neighborhood – one prime for some groundbreaking experimentation in taking advantage of clean energy source.

At least, that’s the case at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Four past decathlon entries comprise the Solar Village at the Rolla, Mo., campus – and an important new twist is coming to the village: installation of a microgrid that will store and manage the renewable energy the houses produce.

The 2005 house at the Solar Village (image via Missouri S&T)

The 2005 house at the Solar Village (image via Missouri S&T)

The goal is to come to some better understanding of how small-scale microgrids might fit into the future energy picture.

“Distributed power generation is one of the key elements of a microgrid. In our case, we’re using solar panels,” Mehdi Ferdowsi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Missouri S&T, said in a statement. ” The idea is that if there is a blackout, it can operate in what we call ‘islanded mode,’ and convert to using stored solar energy.”

These houses don’t sit as mere museum pieces – they’ve been occupied by students and a family, while one of the homes has been used as a lab by the university’s Solar House Team (which, yes, has an entry in the works for the 2013 Solar Decathlon). living in them will test the microgrids ability to meet real energy needs.

“We hope to demonstrate that the technology is expandable to many, based on these four houses,” Ferdowski said. “The students will also demonstrate the human aspect of the project — how people interact with a new system of energy management.”

No matter what the results of this test show, you’ve got to hand it to Missouri S&T for pulling together so many different elements to make the project happen. The company formerly known as A123 – now Wanxiang Group – donated two lithium battery racks worth at least $75,000; the American Public Power Association chipped in $75,000 to fund the installation and graduate student research into community energy storage; and the Missouri utility Ameren is coming through with a fuel cell and heat recovery demonstration unit at the village.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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