The Microgrid Systems Laboratory (MSL), headquartered in Santa Fe, is a fully integrated innovation center for decentralized energy architectures. With a mission to “accelerate the commercial deployment of microgrid systems worldwide,” MSL represents a collaborative effort to speed the transition to a more resilient, sustainable and accessible electricity system.
Microgrids are community-scaled smart-energy networks and are enabling infrastructure for smart grid and other advanced energy technologies. This includes deployments in the developing world, to help alleviate “energy poverty”; in the emerging economies, to reinforce and extend infrastructure; and in the industrial world, to modernize the existing grid for improved performance and to meet economic, security and environmental goals.
Many experts believe microgrids are the future of the electric power system because of their many advantages. But much work still needs to be done to make those benefits real, including ways to address large technical, structural, financial and regulatory gaps. And this is where MSL is delivering value to Santa Fe, northern New Mexico, and beyond.
MSL is a joint venture between the Santa Fe Innovation Park and Santa Fe Community College. The lab works with a broad range of collaborators, including national laboratories, utilities and microgrid experts, in order to perform sponsored research; support prototype, pilot and demonstration projects; advance its own applied research and development and innovation agenda; train a qualified technical and professional workforce; and provide systems-level testing and certification.
Through these activities and its core programs, partners and facilities, MSL develops practical solutions to the challenges that inhibit rapid, reliable microgrid deployments.
The market for decentralized energy solutions is growing rapidly worldwide, driving large commercial and social opportunities for organizations prepared to participate. Microgrid capacity is projected to quadruple in size by 2020. Globally, 2.4 billion people lack adequate access to electricity (of whom 1.3 billion have no electricity at all). In the industrialized world, most centralized grids are at or near replacement age for much of their asset stock and are increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events and sabotage. A badly needed upgrade will occur within a context of flat or declining consumer demand, mandated renewable portfolio standards, increasingly affordable distributed generation and carbon policy and legislation. The need for creative innovation and cross-sector problem solving is acute.
MSL has completed work with a U.S. Department of Energy-funded team developing approaches for microgrids in India, for which it contributed a toolkit for “Human, Social, and Cultural Factors.” MSL is currently developing a research project with its member institutions Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, along with the city of Santa Fe, to optimize the city’s net municipal energy demand and timing; and recently led the microgrid panel at the 2015 Santa Fe Energy Summit, convened by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Mayor Javier Gonzalez, with the participation of DOE Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. With funding from Santa Fe County, MSL partner Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) is designing smart/microgrid curriculum and workforce training programs; concurrently, microgrid infrastructure on the college campus is being designed with funding provided by the state of New Mexico. Several potential microgrid demonstration projects are also in development.
Impact on Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico
MSL benefits Santa Fe and the surrounding region in many ways. It supports local energy modernization efforts with world-class technical expertise from its members and affiliates. By partnering with the city on research projects, it helps demonstrate that Santa Fe can be a “living laboratory” for smart energy systems design, positioning New Mexico as an innovator in the field. MSL will also foster entrepreneurial and economic development activity in the smart/microgrid space, and with SFCC, will create workforce training and employment opportunities for interested Santa Feans and New Mexicans.
In the future, microgrids could become an important part of the region’s energy system. This will begin with the SFCC campus grid described above, and with appropriate regulatory support, could extend to the adjacent residential communities. Tribal communities are also well suited to microgrid architectures and the energy independence and sovereignty they offer. As resiliency becomes a more pressing factor for cities like Santa Fe, microgrids’ ability to disconnect from the main grid and continue autonomous operation could help ensure essential services. Finally, by creating an “energy innovation zone” (such as the Pecan Street project in Austin and the recently proposed innovation district in Washington, D.C.) with special regulatory factors favoring advanced and emerging technologies, Santa Fe can be at the forefront of developing the electric grid’s future, with the attendant economic and public benefits.
David Breecker, managing director of the Microgrid Systems Laboratory, serves on the Energy Efficiency/Renewable Energy and Finance working groups of the Santa Fe Climate Action Task Force.