The Grid Transformation Forum | Ameren's Microgrid: Planning the Grid of the Future

by Warner Baxter and Richard Mark

EET&D : Tell us about Ameren’s distributed energy resource facility. What makes it unique?

Warner : This facility is one of a series of initiatives and partnerships underway at Ameren. We are focused on innovation because we are planning for a future grid that operates much differently—an integrated grid that offers new products and services for our customers. We built our new microgrid in Champaign, Illinois to test how to cost effectively and safely deliver energy from renewable, clean sources to our customers. We have three leased Distributed Energy Resources (DER) on the site: a solar array that can supply up to 125 kilowatts, a 160-foot wind turbine that produces up to 100 kilowatts, and two natural gas units with capacity of 500 kilowatts each. The leased generation assets are supplemented by 250-kilowatt battery storage than can supply about two hours of energy. The industry experts who have visited the facility tell us that it is the most technologically advanced utility scale microgrid in North America because we’re able to seamlessly transition the power source for an entire distribution circuit from exclusively distributed renewable generation sources to the traditional grid.

Richard : That seamless transition from “on-grid power” to “off-grid” is what our engineers call islanding. The obvious example where this can come into play is with a major storm. Being able to proactively switch to the distributed energy resources and then back to the traditional grid without customers experiencing an outage is a major breakthrough in technology. In fact, the renewable assets on site can produce up to 1,475 kilowatts and are powering 190 nearby homes and businesses.

EET&D : The battery storage at your microgrid is state of the art. Talk about these features.

Richard : Our engineering and construction partner was S&C Electric Company. We have a long track record of working with S&C, as the company provides the grid protection and switching equipment that we’re utilizing in our smart grid build-outs throughout our territory. S&C’s battery storage solution is really the backbone of the microgrid. It allows for the full integration of renewable energy sources that can run un-curtailed and even exceed loads. I’m not an engineer, but I understand that having a storage system that can be placed into charging mode while providing reference frequency and voltage is truly state-of-the-art.

EET&D : Warner, while Ameren Missouri is a vertically integrated energy company, Ameren Illinois is delivery only. What are you hoping to learn from your investments in testing distributed generation?

Warner : In 10 years, the electricity generation mix has changed dramatically. An Edison Electric Institute study indicates that one-third of all electricity now comes from zero-emission sources, such as nuclear, hydropower, wind and solar. We see the trend. Larger companies, military installations, and some private citizens are seeking alternative sources of energy and looking to produce it locally. It is incumbent upon even the delivery-only companies such as Ameren Illinois to prepare for the changes that are expected to impact the traditional utility business model. That’s what we’re doing with our microgrid facility. We’re proactively testing and developing the capabilities to manage demand and control and economically dispatch both customer-owned and utility-owned distributed energy resources. We’re doing the research and development today to prepare for the future grid. From our perspective, it’s about turning a potential disrupter into a business opportunity. The Champaign microgrid is a critical component of this effort, and will also help inform our strategy to transition our Missouri generation fleet to a cleaner, more diverse portfolio in a responsible fashion.

EET&D : Warner, how does this fit into the overall Ameren Corp. business strategy?

Warner : As the energy needs and expectations of our customers continue to rise, and as exciting, innovative technologies advance, we’re not waiting for others to lead. The microgrid facility is one of a series of innovations we are working on. We have devoted significant human and capital resources to our efforts to lead today and transform tomorrow by innovating to ensure we are developing and delivering the innovative products and services of most value to our customers as technologies advance and the energy grid becomes more integrated. We’re focusing on the convergence of those technologies that we believe can significantly affect the energy industry, such as battery storage, electric vehicles, utility scale solar and solar partnerships, energy efficiency and digital technologies, as well as analytics. We realize there is no better time than today to focus on innovation and position the company for success as appliances, buildings and cities all become “smarter” in the years ahead. Our microgrid is a primary example of the steps we are taking to lead that transformation.

EET&D : Richard, how does this fit into the Illinois smart grid initiative?

Richard : For the last 150 years, the electric grid has primarily gone unchanged. We’re in year six of a massive overhaul of our energy delivery infrastructure. We’re investing in installing outage detection technology, storm-hardened poles and wires, and smart meters thanks, in part, to a new state law that allows us to accelerate our investments in building a more advanced energy infrastructure. Since the landmark Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) – or Smart Grid Bill – was passed in Illinois in 2011, Ameren Illinois has met every metric outlined in the performance-based formula ratemaking legislation. These grid modernization initiatives have resulted in an overall 17 percent increase in reliability and saved customers an estimated $45 million each year. The work at the microgrid complements these efforts as we build a smarter grid that is more reliable, more resilient against storms and allows customers to take more control of their energy usage.

EET&D : Illinois is gaining a reputation for its strong energy policy. How is this helping you with projects such as the microgrid?

Richard : Simply put, the ratemaking model in Illinois provides certainty that we can recover investments in our electric and natural gas energy delivery systems more quickly. That’s good for our company, our customers, and our investors. For our customers, it means we’re modernizing the century-old grid and delivering energy more reliably. A smarter grid means fewer outages and it gives customers the opportunity to save on their bills by participating in pricing and energy usage programs enabled by smart meters. The Illinois state legislature and our public utility commission deserve credit for positioning Illinois as a national leader in the development of a progressive energy policy.

Energy Storage: The Backbone of a Microgrid
By: Chris Evanich

The hype around microgrids is finally starting to make its way onto the electrical grid. While the buzz has always been around increasing grid reliability and the resiliency microgrids offer, there are many reasons they are successful at hardening the grid. However, the most important aspect of the entire microgrid system is the energy storage components involved. Energy storage serves as the backbone of any microgrid deployment – without it, the entire system is limited in what it can accomplish.

As the “Swiss Army Knife of the grid,” the fundamental advantage of using energy storage is that these systems can both charge and discharge power – serving as a source or a load, while a traditional rotating machine, or generator, can only discharge power. This means the battery energy storage system can either absorb energy from the renewable generation or push energy out to the grid. The energy storage system can quickly respond to handle the fluctuations in output from renewable energy generation. Energy storage also makes the system more efficient, ensuring that the load can be carried and none of the renewable power generated is lost to curtailment.

At the Ameren microgrid, for example, there are 225 kW of renewable generation on site, comprised of solar and wind. The storage management system can run the microgrid island from the battery and have both renewable sources feeding in. No matter the load—whether minimal or full capacity—nearby end users can be powered exclusively by the renewables and energy storage. If we look at the same approach with generators instead of energy storage, the production of the renewables would have to be curtailed to less than the demand.

Including energy storage in a microgrid increases the overall reliability of the whole system through fast response. When the battery starts, it’s on almost instantaneously after receiving the communication. When using a generator, there is significant lag time as it warms up and prepares to synchronize or accept load. This entire process could take tens of seconds, resulting in a longer duration of loss of power, where energy storage provides faster transitions into and out of islanded operation for end users. Turning off the system has similar challenges when using a traditional generator. Energy storage can be turned off quickly by a simple command to shut down the battery. A generator needs to cool down and lightly unload through a lengthy procedure. Additionally, most generators can only be started and stopped a certain amount of times per day because of the stresses of these activities, while a battery energy storage system is not limited by these constraints.

Implementing energy storage in a microgrid can enable additional renewable generation, and provide improved system performance in a variety of scenarios. Recognizing the significant role that energy storage plays in these systems is key to fulfilling the potential of microgrids around the world, bringing users that much closer to consistently reliable power, regardless of the source.

About the Author

Chris Evanich is the manager of microgrids for S&C Electric Company, where he focuses on the global business development of microgrids using S&C’s medium voltage switching, protection, energy storage and control product lines. He holds a B.S. in electrical engineering from Cleveland State University and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University. He is an active member of IEEE, including participation in the Standards Association and as an IEEE PES Scholar Mentor.

Warner : In 2016, we invested $2.1 billion dollars in the energy infrastructure serving Illinois and Missouri to make the grid smarter to meet our customers’ evolving energy needs. We continue to be strategic and disciplined in our investment approach, with our rate-base growth focused on investment in constructive regulatory jurisdictions, like Illinois. We built this facility in Illinois, in part, because of this regulatory model. Under Richard’s leadership, legislation has been passed that has paved the way for Ameren Illinois to implement a world-class energy infrastructure modernization program. It’s enabling Ameren Illinois to deploy the latest, cutting edge technology to prevent service disruptions and improve overall reliability. It’s enabling us to cultivate the workforce of the future. It’s also a major reason why Ameren Corporation continues to invest heavily in our Illinois segment for the benefit of customers, communities and shareholders.

EET&D : What do you want EE T&D Readers to know about your efforts with this microgrid facility and your future plans?

Richard : We’re asking our customers to think 10, 15, 20 years ahead. Utility companies such as Ameren will no longer be the only ones pushing power onto the system. Instead, individuals and commercial establishments will also have the capability to generate their own power from a variety of sources. We’re positioning ourselves to be partners with our customers to help them safely install and cost-effectively operate these resources, and integrate all of these assets under one control scheme with the distribution monitoring expertise to ensure that it is safely and optimally delivered. We know customers want control of their energy, and we want to give it to them.

Warner : As a company, we have never looked just a few years down the road. The work at the microgrid is occurring today, but it’s really about what is going to happen decades ahead. The profile of the energy grid, how it operates, customer expectations, the form of regulation and overall business models will all be different in the future. We believe that the utility industry and Ameren are well positioned to be critical enablers of a transformation that will bring greater value to customers and shareholders. To achieve that “enabling” function, we are leveraging our extensive energy expertise and customer relationships, and pursuing innovative partnerships to integrate smart-grid technologies and deliver more innovative and value-added services to our customers.

We are “leading from the front” on important energy and economic policy matters by advocating for responsible policies that will benefit our customers, shareholders and communities. At the same time, we are relentlessly focused on improving our operational performance. There is no question that we see a future with a stronger, smarter grid capable of delivering the products and services customers value most. We will not waiver in our pursuit of excellence and our focus on delivering superior customer and shareholder value today and in the future.

About the Authors

Warner Baxter is chairman, president and chief executive officer of St. Louis-based Ameren Corporation, parent company of rate-regulated energy companies that serve more than 2.4 million electric and 900,000 natural gas customers in Illinois and Missouri. During his more than 20-year tenure at Ameren, Baxter has also served in a variety of leadership roles, including chief financial officer and president of Ameren Missouri.

Baxter earned a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from the University of Missouri–St. Louis and has made meaningful and long-lasting contributions to higher education through his involvement with the University of Missouri System. He is a member of the University of Missouri–St. Louis Chancellors Council and serves on the University of Missouri 100 Board.

Richard Mark is chairman and president of Ameren Illinois Companies (AIC). He is responsible for energy delivery to more than 1.2 million electric and 816,000 natural gas customers across three-quarters of the state of Illinois. Prior to joining Ameren in 2002, Mark spent six years as president & CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in East St. Louis and five years as COO. Mark served voluntarily for 10 years as chairman of the East St. Louis District 189 State Financial Oversight Panel, an Illinois Governor appointed position. He has received three honorary doctorate degrees for his civic and community work, as well as numerous awards and honors. In 2015, he was named Who’s Who in Energy by the St. Louis Business Journal. He was also named one of Savoy Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America for 2016 & 2014.

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