Howard University plans Washington's first microgrid

Howard teams up with D.C.-based Pareto Energy to create a living laboratory for engineering students and faculty, as they build the first microgrid in the nation's capital.

Last month, Howard University and Washington-based Pareto Energy announced a partnership to develop a microgrid for the school’s campus.

Microgrids, which are independent power systems that often use renewable energy and work in conjunction with existing power grids, are ideal for high energy use areas, such as office complexes, government buildings and university campuses. Howard’s microgrid will reduce the school’s carbon footprint and may also provide energy for its surrounding neighborhood. Planners expect development will take two years.

I recently talked to Dr. James Momoh, a professor in Howard’s department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and director of the school’s Center for Energy Systems and Control, which will play a key role with the microgrid. He said the project will provide a living laboratory for engineering students and faculty, as they build and operate the first microgrid in the nation’s capital.

Microgrids are effective because they meet specific goals for smaller geographic areas. Tell me about the benefits of having a microgrid at Howard.

When the president of any university calculates his budget, the money that goes into running these buildings, stadiums and hospitals, has a lot to do with the energy bills.

There are benefits in efficiency, research, technology and training. We have been fortunate to have been involved in this for the last 20 years, through research grants and through the work at the Center for Energy Systems and Control. The microgrid will enable us to manage power and increase efficiency. It will reduce stress on Pepco. We can also provide a power supply at minimum cost to the neighborhood and the campus. Our research center allows us to test the techniques and engage our students. We’re training our students for the workforce with advanced technology.

You just finished a feasibility study for the microgrid. What did you learn?

First, we’ve learned that it’s a good business, it’s not risky, and the economic benefit is going to be very high to Howard over a long time. We could see that if we invested in this technology today, we would only have to worry about the cost of maintenance.

Second is that we learned we have all the tools to get it done. We will use our own technology as well as an advanced technology that Pareto has developed.

What questions about your microgrid are still unanswered?

We need to [figure out] how we will ensure that the system we are building at Howard is able to withstand any cyber attack. A lot of computers will support the power system. The hardware will be microprocessor-based. Part of our research is to look at protecting these computers against any kind of assault.

Also: How do we ensure the microgrid is connected with Pepco? we have to worry about interoperability--interfacing the microgrid with the existing system to make sure we keep the standards already set.

What kind of cost savings do you expect?

There are several stages. As the cost of gas goes up, that’s when you begin to see the benefits of the microgrid. You can’t control the trends of oil. Once you pay off the initial costs, over a long time, you’ll see your benefits increasing. We’ll be able to manage our own power at affordable prices and provide reliable power, even to our neighbors. If we have excess, we could even market it back to Pepco. We would be a backup to them, and they could be a backup to us.

Image: Howard University

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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