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Look to College Campuses for Schooling on Nationwide Smart Grid

CCA LiveE | Thursday December 22nd, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By Christina McCauley

A 7.0 earthquake rocks the west coast.  A category 5 hurricane hits the south.  A sweltering record heat wave melts the plains states.  Paralyzing snowstorms slam the northeast.  During the recovery, electricity is down, natural gas stops flowing, and the nation’s energy system is severely strained.  Rapid reallocation of energy resources is critical in these situations.

Focus on sustainable energy solutions and an integrated national smart grid in the U.S. has never been more important, yet there is still apprehension about the adoption of a nationwide smart grid initiative.  Contrary to unfavorable opinion surrounding smart metering efforts, evidence of the benefits of an integrated energy system is showing up at colleges that have implemented campus-wide smart grids, or “microgrids.” Rutgers, Cornell, NYU, Utica College, Catabwa College, University of Mississippi, and the California State University system are all examples of higher learning institutions that have made capital investments in microgrid energy systems, with significant payoff. What lessons can lawmakers, utilities, and the public learn from these successful microgrid implementations to apply to a nationwide system?

Allocation of energy usage

The most significant benefit of the construction of a nationwide smart grid is the increased capability of energy allocation and rerouting when energy supplies are strained.  Imagine if excess energy generated from solar panels in the Mojave Desert could be relayed through the grid to upstate New York during a frigid cold front to ensure adequate electricity keeps the heaters running.  On college campuses, this reallocation capability is being made possible through microgrid systems.

Perhaps the most exciting example of a college campus committing to smart grid solutions is the University of Mississippi and its energy management pilot program.  After the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, James Morrison, Director of Strategic Planning and Campus Sustainability at Ole Miss said, “When you consider the realities that we’re faced with you quickly realize how important it is to be able to make real-time decisions with energy usage data.”  To obtain this real-time information, Ole Miss has partnered with SmartSynch, Inc., a provider of smart grid solutions. The University of Mississippi is able to capture its real-time energy usage statistics utilizing data from SmartSynch’s SmartMeters, which are installed on 16 buildings throughout the campus. This data allows Ole Miss to monitor energy consumption patterns over time, compare energy usage between buildings, and understand the best way to allocate energy during an emergency.

Rutgers University is also among the most recent college campuses to commit to a smart grid solution, with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.  Through the installation of a smart metering system on five of its campuses, Rutger’s microgrid will allow the university to track its usage of water, electricity, and natural gas. By analyzing long-term usage trends, Rutgers will be able to develop more accurate plans on allocation of utility services during times of high stress or emergency.

Knowledge sharing and accountability through partnerships

It’s not easy planning a smart grid solution as a small community with limited resources.  This is where collaboration comes in.  Partnerships enable companies to broaden and deepen their consumer base, while the college gains industry knowledge and resources.  Collaboration between energy utilities and the community also places accountability on both parties to promote sustainability through conservation.  Several college campuses are entering the smart grid arena with a leg up by partnering with utility companies and industry service providers that have already established processes for implementing successful smart grid monitoring solutions. Catabwa College in North Carolina has teamed up with Duke Energy to create an energy management program designed to help the college monitor, reduce, and shift energy consumption throughout its buildings. Duke is also piloting a similar sustainability-focused program at Davidson College to enable the campus to manage energy demand at peak times through analysis of real-time usage data.

Is this scalable?

While the development of a microgrid system on a college campus is a local level engagement, the lessons learned above describe scalable benefits that can be multiplied when expanded to the national level.  In fact, a nationwide smart grid will only develop by networking smaller grid systems together.  An example of this integration is present within the California State University (CSU) system.  Almost all of the CSU’s 23 campuses have implemented a microgrid solution, and these microgrids are beginning to be linked across the campuses to identify where the system can increase energy efficiency.

CSU’s expanding smart grid network represents the organic growth necessary to catalyze a national system.  With such gradual and steady growth, the benefits of a nationwide smart grid system in the United States – and beyond – can be realized.

Christina McCauley is a project management consultant for utility companies implementing smart metering solutions.  She is passionate about enabling customers to make conscious energy conservation decisions by empowering them with their energy usage data. cmccauley@cca.edu


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