New Microgrid Testing Facility in Colorado to Offer Flexible Plug-And-Play

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A new private microgrid testing facility in Colorado will offer a pay, plug and play alternative to government labs that it hopes will attract innovators worldwide.

Managed by MRIGlobal, GridNXT is slated to open in the first quarter of 2017 on 1,900 acres near Denver.

The microgrid facility evolved out of what began as SolarTAC, which describes itself as the nation’s largest public-private outdoor solar testing and demonstration facility.

SolarTAC was originally created as a home for solar companies to do both proprietary and collaborative work. But it quickly became a place for large-scale, never-before-seen system integrations.

“We recognized that if we were successful in what we were doing, the world would change very rapidly. And that’s exactly what’s happened,” said Dustin Smith, executive director. “As solar very rapidly became not only cost-effective, but also an easy resource to disseminate, there was an explosion of new features and benefits that came along with it.”

Smith likens today’s energy revolution to the rise of the cell phone.

“The cell phone was limited when it was a hardwired thing, but as soon as it became wireless and they brought in smart phone apps, functioning as a phone became only a small portion of what it could do. Distributed energy is doing the same thing; it is revolutionizing the choices of who can buy and sell power, driving down costs,” he said. “This means new features coming out for the end user/consumer, and that the hundred-year-old grid we are operating on has got to get a lot more flexible and a lot smarter.”

GridNXT will be a testing hub where innovators can make that happen. With infrastructure improvements totalling $1.5 million, the facility will offer innovators an opportunity to interconnect and test new battery technologies, advanced inverters, component interoperability and grid management systems.

Unlike a lab environment, GridNXT is an outdoor facility allowing for real-world testing conditions. Participating companies can access key microgrid components including a 200-kW solar array, 100-kW DC-power supply solar energy simulator, a 100-kW wind energy simulator, a 500-kW diesel generator, a 100-250 kWh battery, and a 500-kVA programmable load bank. The DC simulator on site can simulate both wind and solar at different voltages – a unique feature that can be very important when looking at high voltage inverters. Right now, said Smith, there really are no systems out there that allow companies to test inverters at 1,500 volts.

The programmable load center can mimic all sorts of different loads at 500 kW, both rotational and resistant. It features a Colorado Sustainable Power Systems controller, one of the facility’s first customers. Participants can integrate individual equipment and devices with the microgrid or any specific microgrid components, as well as test complete microgrid systems in a dedicated space – a microgrid within the microgrid.

The facility offers flexible terms for use, ranging from several months to several years. A participant might reserve a battery inverter station for two years, testing a 10- or 40-kW battery with different generation components, within a microgrid itself or as a stand-alone. They could pull off that battery and drop in another one, or use three stations to test three different versions of one battery.

The built-in features will be flexible, said Smith, making it very fast and cost effective for companies to operate. And, it’s easy to get into the rotation. “You can say, I have a battery I want to test, and I want to test it in the next 30 days,” said Smith. “There’s no other facility quite like it in the U.S.”

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The microgrid testing facility will include a half-acre where companies can conduct behind-the-fence, proprietary work and interface with the microgrid on an as-needed basis. “Companies can now say, we want to use your infrastructure to test in the way we want to test it, working with other participants – and also getting some proprietary information out of it,” said Smith.

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