A Plateau for Energy Research
Originally published January 8, 2014
Los Alamos, N.M., is located more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Photos courtesy of Los Alamos County.
The 30-mile drive from New Mexico’s capital city of Santa Fe to Los Alamos is not a fast one, but the switchback road, route 502, takes a visitor 7,320 feet above sea level to a breathtaking vista of mesas and canyons where the air is crisp and clean. Before Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer selected it for the site of his top-secret Manhattan Project, Los Alamos was home to an exclusive boarding school that provided a rigorous outdoor experience and a classical education to the young sons of wealthy families.
The school’s buildings were appropriated by the federal government in 1942. The following year Oppenheimer began work on the project that developed the atomic bomb that ended World War II with the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. After the war, Los Alamos National Laboratory remained on the site and Los Alamos was a gated government town for the following two decades. It was 1968 before the consolidated county-city government was established. When that happened, residents opted to have the local government operate the electric, gas, water and wastewater utilities.
Today, the lab accounts for 80 percent of the utility’s electric load and the community born of the need for sophisticated scientific research is broadening its legacy. The Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities is host to a smart grid demonstration project carried out by several Japanese companies working with “NEDO,” the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, part of Japan’s Ministry of Trade.
It is hard to overlook the irony in the contrast; in the 1940s, activities at Los Alamos were aimed at Japan, but, 70 years later, a relationship with the country is bourgeoning. But the partnership between the utility and its visiting researchers is exciting, fascinating, cordial and comfortable. The Japanese companies are studying customer responses to pricing signals and testing new technology in a smart house built and owned by Los Alamos County.
Most of the $52-million investment in the project came from the Japanese government, said John Arrowsmith, utilities manager for Los Alamos County. The associated companies built a 1-megawatt solar array on an eight-acre site atop a former county landfill. Solar photovoltaic collectors from several manufacturers are installed on the site to allow the researchers to compare different brands. A large battery system at the site is used to stabilize solar power supplies through a micro energy management system.
“If clouds come over and the PV power goes down, the micro energy management system will send a signal to the battery to release power,” Arrowsmith said. “Our power dispatcher doesn’t have to take action to manage the supply.”
To accommodate the research, Los Alamos DPU installed 1,600 smart meters at customer sites on a single feeder that is connected to the solar array. Nine hundred customers with the smart meters volunteered to participate in a dynamic pricing experiment. Customers are divided into groups, including a critical peak pricing group, a peak time rebate group and a control group. The researchers stage 15 power constraints per quarter and observe whether customers change electricity consumption habits if prices increase seven-fold or if rebate incentives are provided for energy saved.
Los Alamos is a research-friendly community. Most of the 18,000 residents are in the county because of the lab, Arrowsmith said. “There’s an often-cited statistic that we have more PhDs per capita than any other place.” People in Los Alamos are excited about the smart meters, he said. Customers can go to a web portal called “My Meter” or use an in-house display panel and look at their consumption in very fine increments, or by day, and compare their own energy use to that of their neighbors.
A second smart grid study underway in Los Alamos involves 100 customers who are completing detailed records about their activities during specific time periods so the Japanese researchers can observe how activities drive electricity use. ”We’ve got some interesting charts they’ve given us that show cooking, sleeping, browsing the Internet, watching television,” Arrowsmith said.
Japanese companies are studying customer responses to pricing signals and testing new technology in a smart house built and owned by Los Alamos County.
The county built a smart house that the Japanese researchers are using to evaluate other technologies. The house has solar rooftop collectors, energy storage batteries, smart appliances and a home energy management system designed to take maximum advantage of solar power generation and respond to price signals from the grid. The house can operate independent of the electric distribution grid should a power outage occur.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s relationship with the Japanese Ministry of Trade led to the investment in the Los Alamos project. The county competed in 2009 with other utilities in the state to host the research projects. The Japanese researchers opted to undertake their studies in Los Alamos, and public power had a hand in their choice.
“They liked the fact that we are a fully integrated utility and that our utilities board and council could change rates and do things very quickly,” said Arrowsmith. “Municipal utilities are not state-regulated in New Mexico. Our utilities board and council have a public hearing and the rate goes into effect. We can come up with a rate change within two months.”
The Japanese companies want to develop international markets for their smart grid and renewable energy projects. Companies working with NEDO, the 19-member research consortium, include many that are familiar to Americans: Toshiba, Kyocera, NEC Corp., Sharp, Hitachi.
The utility industry in Japan comprises only a few companies, the largest of which is Tokyo Electric, Arrowsmith said. Manufacturing companies experience great difficulty undertaking this type of research in Japan. Since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resultant damage to Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan has set a national goal of meeting all electricity needs through renewable resources by 2030.
“I asked the engineers who work on the project if they think that is possible,” Arrowsmith said. They believe it will be extremely challenging, but they believe the country will make substantial progress toward that goal.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez watches a demonstration at the Los Alamos smart house.
Los Alamos hopes the Japanese research projects, which will conclude in April 2014 and April 2015, become the foundation for a new high-profile role in energy research for the county— to make Los Alamos for energy research what California’s Silicon Valley is for the high-tech industry, Arrowsmith said. The Japanese companies’ substantial investment gives the county a good start and the presence of the national lab is a further boost to the county’s goal. A new biofuels research facility that opened recently is another boost to that goal. Researchers there are looking at creating fuel from algae.
The opportunity to build on the county’s research heritage got a boost over the last decade when management of the national lab was moved from the University of California, a tax-exempt organization, to private contractors. The new lab managers pay taxes, resulting in an unprecedented dramatic boost to county revenues. With the new source of revenue, the county government has moved out of old Manhattan Project-era buildings to new modern energy-efficient structures, including a new county office building that is home to the utilities and other government departments.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are experimenting with grid-tied heating and air conditioning systems in one of their large office buildings. “They can cut demand by 300 kW if there is a constraint, without affecting the comfort in the building,” Arrowsmith said. The county would like to try that technology in its new buildings, he said.
Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities generates 75 percent of its energy needs. The utility owns two run-of-the river hydroelectric plants, El Vado and Abiquiu, and has a share of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in Farmington, N.M.
Arrowsmith and his team are wrestling with the challenges of environmental regulations at the San Juan plant. Under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, two of the station’s four units will be shut down; the remaining two units will be outfitted with selective noncatalytic reduction systems, or SNCRs, and be permitted to continue operating. Nine utilities from California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico share ownership of the plant; Public Service Co. of New Mexico is the operating partner.
Arrowsmith has spent nearly two years working out operating arrangements on the plant with the remaining owners.
“We own an interest in unit four, which will continue to operate,” he said. “Some owners in our unit want out because their regulators are encouraging a move away from coal. “The other issue is reliability,” he said. “Right now, we have a hazard-sharing agreement with one of the units that’s being shut down. If their unit is off, we give them half [of our output] and if our unit trips off, we get half from them, so it’s a pretty nice arrangement. That will go away in 2017 when that unit shuts down. We’re going to have to work out a new arrangement for reliability. We will still have our 36 MW, but we’ll have to make another hazard-sharing agreement with maybe the other unit that’s going to remain, but we’ll have to negotiate that.”
Modern utility challenges such as those at the San Juan Station aside, Los Alamos County and its department of public utilities are looking at an exciting period of growth and an opportunity to inform the development of the electric utility industry over the next few decades.
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