Today’s Solutions: December 01, 2021

In the small town of Basalt, Colorado, a small housing development that was meant to stand as a bulwark against skyrocketing housing prices is now dually serving as a living laboratory for testing advanced power grid technologies. The hope is that, one day, these technologies could turn every home into an appendage of a decentralized power plant.

The development, Basalt Vista, is designed to be an all-electric community that produces as much power as it uses. Each home comes outfitted with an electric vehicle charger in the garage, a large battery pack in the basement, and a roof covered with solar panels. The homes are linked together as a microgrid, a self-contained electricity distribution network that can operate independently of the regional electric grid. Their energy systems work together to balance the energy load across the neighborhood—the solar panels harvest energy, plugged in EVs can store electricity as needed, and large battery packs can supply power when the sun isn’t shining.

But what makes Basalt Vista’s microgrid unique is that it autonomously allocates power. There’s an internet-connected control box in the basement of each home running experimental software that continuously optimizes electricity distribution across the microgrid and the flow of energy to and from the larger regional grid. When one home produces more energy than it needs, it can autonomously make the decision to redistribute it to its neighbors or store it for later. 

If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably read stories from us before that refer to this idea, which is known as a “virtual power plant”, a network of self-optimizing energy resources that unbundles the centralized utility and distributes it across the grid. Like microgrids, virtual power plants consist of distributed energy systems such as rooftop solar panels, EV chargers, and battery packs.

The difference is virtual power plants aren’t really designed to disconnect from the greater grid. Instead, they aggregate and control distributed energy sources so they can perform the functions of a large centralized power plant—generating and storing electricity—for the wider grid. Proponents of the virtual power plant claim it could serve as an antidote to the inherent variability of renewable energy systems by efficiently matching supply and demand across widely-distributed electricity producers and consumers. 

For now, the technology only exists in the basements of Basalt Vista, but if the experiment is successful, it may one day control power for millions of other families.

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