Japan-U.S. smart grid project now live in New Mexico

A smart grid project that has been under development for over a year, created by a collaboration of Japanese and U.S. companies, is now live in New Mexico. The demonstration project promises to help solve some thorny problems with adding more renewable energy into the power grid.

The network will test out solar power, energy storage and electric grid management and produce data and analyses over the next six months, said Japanese solar panel maker, Kyocera, which is taking part in the project. The project also involves the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) of Japan, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities. NEDO itself is a group of government, research institutions and private tech companies such as Kyocera, Toshiba and Hitachi.

The participants held a ceremony this week to kick off the operation of the $52 million project, which involves a micro-grid and a “smart house” demonstration in Los Alamos. The Japanese consortium also is working on a smart building project in a mixed-use community in Albuquerque called Mesa del Sol.

NEDO and its affiliated Japanese companies decided to head to New Mexico to test smart grid technologies with the local utility in Los Alamos partly because Japanese utilities aren’t as flexible or able to act as quickly to accommodate the project, according to this 2011 presentation by the Los Alamos utility company. The Japanese companies also want to sell their technologies in the U.S. and take an active role in setting international technical standards for smart grid. The Los Alamos lab will help with data collection, management and modeling.

The consortium conceived of the project a few years back and signed an agreement to carry it out in 2010. While the goal back then included an intent to tackle the U.S. market, the results from the project could serve Japan as well, particularly since the country has been keen on boosting renewable energy generation ever since its Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in March 2011. Kyocera, for example, earlier this year announced a plan to sell solar energy systems with batteries to homeowners in Japan.

Adding more renewable energy into the grid presents technical and operational challenges for utilities and grid operators. Solar and wind power, for example, can only be generated at certain hours of the day and night, and weather conditions have a big impact on their production rates. Since an electric grid works best when there is a balance of supply and demand, grid operators have to figure out how to make up for any short fall or surge of renewable energy that could happen at any time. Power plants that use coal, natural gas and nuclear, on the other hand, can produce a steady stream of power.

Many other utilities and tech companies are carrying out similar demonstration projects in the U.S. in order to meet their state mandates to increasing the use of renewable energy.

One of the two projects underway within Los Alamos utility’s territory creates a micro-grid using a 1 MW solar energy system and a 1.8 MW/8.3 Mwh battery system. The solar energy will course through a particular distribution line to test its impact on the grid.

The second project will put solar panels on a home, which has been built especially for the project (check out the Los Alamos Daily Post’s report), and pairs the solar system by Kyocera with a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery system, a heat pump storage unit, and sensors and communication equipment. The idea is to figure out how to operate all this equipment to meet the energy demand of the home and respond to any requests from the utility or grid operator to use the solar electricity for balancing the grid.

Photo courtesy of Kyocera