GridOptimal Initiative Changes Power Grid Interaction

04/11/2019 | By Janelle Penny

GridOptimal, a new initiative by the New Buildings Institute and the U.S. Green Building Council, aims to help buildings become better “grid citizens” by improving communications between the built environment and the power grid.

A good grid citizen is a building that can adjust the amount of grid power it uses and the amount of renewable energy it feeds into the grid according to the grid’s needs, explains Alexi Miller, a LEED AP and senior project manager for the New Buildings Institute.

Flexibility is key to good grid citizenship. The GridOptimal initiative will create a standardized way to measure that flexibility with metrics that can be used for utility programs, code and policy development, facilities management and evaluating buildings as financial assets.

“The grid is changing. More renewable energy is coming onto the grid, and the role of buildings in the electricity grid in general is changing,” says Miller.

“A good grid citizen is a building that can adjust the amount of grid power it uses and the amount of renewable energy it feeds into the grid according to the grid’s needs.” - Alexi Miller

“You’re getting more buildings that have solar panels on them, for example, and that’s changing things from a one-way flow of energy to a two-way flow, which is a paradigm shift for the electric grid because it was built on the one-way model. We need to start thinking about what roles buildings can play in this new paradigm. There are ways for buildings to shift their loads, adapt to this and profit off of it, but to make that achievable, you need to have some way to measure it. That’s what we’re working on,” Miller continues.

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How the Power Grid Informs Development

GridOptimal’s research so far has focused on a few key areas to create context for the new metrics.

Grid conditions across the U.S.

Helping buildings optimize their interactions with the power grid requires a thorough understanding of buildings’ current needs, Miller states.

Grid conditions are driven by factors like local weather, the timing of peak demand periods and the mix of energy sources feeding the grid. California’s renewable energy mainly comes from solar power, while northern states focus more heavily on hydroelectric power, Miller says.

Grid communication challenges in different regions.

For example, California’s solar power is most available in the middle of the day. However, that means less solar power is available in the evening when people turn on electric lighting to make up for the lack of daylight.

“It would be helpful to shift some of your load to noon,” Miller explains. “How does a building do that? What are the measures you can take as a building designer or operator to do that? Can you precool? What happens if you adjust control settings, thermostats, or thermal or battery storage? Can you have electrochromic windows to minimize heat gain during certain hours?”

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Building demand profiles.

“A big piece of grid citizenship is whether the building’s load is helpful to the utility. The times it uses energy, are they good or bad?” says Miller. “There’s a whole world of grayscale on that, so we’re quantifying different aspects of what’s good or bad. Is a building that’s able to shed 25% of its load for three hours good, or is it more realistic that they’re going to shed 10% over one hour? We’re doing research both on the grid and on buildings to define the challenges and what buildings can do to meet those challenges.”

What Makes a Good Power Grid Citizen

Ideally, a building’s demand curve will be as flat as possible, Miller says. Avoiding energy use during the utility’s peak hours is good for both the building and the utility.

There are a few things facilities managers and building designers can do to lower the height of the building’s peak energy usage.

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“Time use rates are a fact of life for most people in the country,” notes Miller. “The way designers or operators might adjust to that include a better envelope, better insulation, air tightness or better glazing. Precool or preheat to maintain the temperature through peak times. Focus on passive systems first and efficiency second—highly efficient systems use less power in the first place, and having highly insulated and passive buildings means you don’t need to run those system for as many hours during peak energy periods. Active systems are important, too, so consider energy storage or ice tanks, for example.”

Communication systems between the building and the grid are also crucial to making these strategies work, Miller adds.

Demand response programs (if your utility offers them) are a good place to start. The key is to be able to receive a signal from the grid that you need to use less grid power and then respond to that signal somehow.

“All of these things together add up to a building with a flatter load shape that’s less spiky and less peaky,” Miller says.

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Get Involved with GridOptimal

The U.S. Green Building Council plans to fold GridOptimal’s metrics into LEED in the future, Miller says. The GridOptimal development team is evaluating language for a future LEED credit.

“Utility incentives are also angling to use this as part of their program so that they can move from just paying for kilowatt-hours regardless of when they’re available to paying for valuable kilowatt-hours to the grid, because not all energy is created equal anymore,” says Miller. “This is a way they can leverage those metrics.”

You don’t have to wait for new LEED credits to measure your building with GridOptimal, however. The initiative is currently seeking pilot projects.

Connect with Miller and the GridOptimal team at alexi@newbuildings.org to learn more about how you can assess your building’s performance with GridOptimal.

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