At first glance, the newly constructed Reynolds Landing community in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, looks like any other newly constructed well-to-do neighborhood.
The homes carry a modern, though not entirely futuristic, design. The streets wind in a rectangle, branching off in one corner into a cul-de-sac. By all indications, the 62-home neighborhood appears to represent just another slice of U.S. suburbia.
Except, of course, for the nearby 5-acre microgrid – replete with rows upon rows of solar panels, a large storage battery and a backup natural gas generator providing power to the community’s new residents as part of a two-year energy trial overseen by local electric utility Alabama Power.
“Our industry’s changing a good bit. There (has been) a lot of speculation about what that change would look like and a lot of internal debate about that future,” says Todd Rath, a marketing services director at Alabama Power who served as the project lead for the Reynolds Landing development. “This is not an energy efficient project or a connectivity project or a distributed generation project, per se. It is sort of a macro project of how all those things work together and what our customers will look like and how we’ll serve them going forward.”
The homes in the Reynolds Landing Community neighborhood – all of which have been sold, with prices hovering in the $300,000 range – will still have access to the standard electrical grid maintained by Alabama Power. But they’re also connected to a separate, stand-alone power network that relies in part on renewable energy sources to keep the lights on in the neighborhood.
Alabama Power estimates the Reynolds Landing microgrid – which relies in large part on a solar array but is also fitted with a natural gas-powered backup generator – will be able to generate more than 586,000 kilowatt hours of power each year, which they say would be sufficient to service the neighborhood on its own.
“To our knowledge, this size of a project had never been done, especially in the Southeast. It was unique to us,” Rath says. “These connected homes and efficient homes (are) potentially beginning to drive construction in our area and the way we go to market with houses.”
Alabama Power partnered with Signature Homes in the construction of the houses, which are all interconnected in the neighborhood’s microgrid web. Each home is also fitted with state-of-the-art, energy-efficient appliances from makers such as Carrier, Samsung and Vivint, which Shon Richey, a sales and technical support supervisor at Alabama Power, says will allow them to be 35 percent more energy efficient than a standard home.
And from an interactive screen on each of the residents’ refrigerators, those interested in learning more about how their home uses electricity will be able to see exact breakdowns and statistics on how they’re utilizing power.
“They can get a real-time update of how they’re using energy in their home,” Richey says. “At different points in time, if they want to pull back or really want to control the efficiency of energy in their home, they have the tools to do that.”
Rath and Richey say the project was borne out of a desire within Alabama Power to learn more about microgrid and renewable energy options as U.S. technology advances and consumers become increasingly conscious of their respective energy footprints.
Residents of the community have agreed to allow Alabama Power to collect their energy data for 24 months to help the company better understand how to work microgrid projects and renewable resources into their energy portfolio.
“We’re just trying to end the speculation (surrounding microgrids), and we don’t know this will end all of the speculation,” Rath says. “But it will give us solid data in order to make decisions going forward.”
Microgrid technology has exploded in popularity in recent years. Global revenues from microgrids jumped 29 percent between 2015 and 2016 to $6.8 billion, with revenues in the U.S. hitting $2.2 billion in 2016 – more than double their total from 2011 – according to a report published last year by the Advanced Energy Economy trade association.
That ascent is only expected to continue in the years ahead. A recent report from the IMARC Group estimated the global microgrid market to be worth $17 billion in 2017. That total is expected to nearly double to $33 billion by 2023.
Traditional utility providers such as Alabama Power appear to have taken notice of the upstart energy option’s growing viability and have attempted to set up their own silos and research centers to better understand how to provide power to a population no longer wholly reliant on a central nonrenewable energy grid.
Georgia Power, a sister company to Alabama Power that is also owned by the Southern Company, is working on a smart neighborhood in Atlanta that will include solar and battery energy storage capabilities similar to the Reynolds Landing project. And utilities in Washington, Florida and California have also explored microgrid capabilities in recent years.
“They are now building their own microgrids all over the place. A lot of utilities are doing that because they realize this is happening and they need to understand it,” says David Riley, a professor of architectural engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. “It’s a pattern, and until you build one, you really don’t have any legs to stand on in terms of saying you know what you’re doing.”
Riley serves as the director of the Penn State GridSTAR research center at the school’s Navy Yard branch in Philadelphia. The GridSTAR Center – which was established in 2011 and has been funded in part through Department of Energy grants – is a place where, as Riley describes it, “we were able to build a microgrid with solar energy storage and all of the bells and whistles so we can learn and experience all of the things we could bring together.”
The center afforded Penn State researchers the opportunity to construct their own clean and renewable power grid – an experience that they translated into a curriculum to ensure the next generation of domestic workers is able to fully take advantage of these technologies.
“We want to help grow the microgrid market with this GridSTAR Center,” he says. “All of the technologies that go into microgrids have a lot of diverse characteristics. It’s a significant effort to help people get their head around the diversities of technologies and understand when certain things are a good idea.”
Riley says there are several reasons why interest in microgrids has taken off in recent years – not the least of which are the significant cost reductions for key microgrid components such as batteries and solar panels.
When he purchased his first solar module in 2006, Riley says he paid $6 per watt. More recently, he says that price was as low as 52 cents per watt.
“Batteries alone are hugely diverse technologies. And there’s a lot going on, but costs are coming down. And people are paying more attention to batteries because they’re getting cheaper and cheaper every day,” he says. “The cost of the main components, solar and batteries, has dropped at a rate that is unbelievable.”
More broadly, though, Riley says microgrids are being viewed as a fail-safe option in the event of a widespread power outage or terror attack. He points to the devastation Hurricane Sandy left after making landfall in New York and New Jersey as a disaster that could have been mitigated in part by the use of microgrid technology rather than a damaged central grid.
“When downtown Manhattan had offices that went weeks without power – and that could happen again – it came at a time when people were thinking about microgrids. Microgrids can offer resiliency. And resiliency is a really big thing,” he says. “There are all kinds of threats to our power supply. Whether it’s terrorists or storms, I don’t like that.”
And as battery and alternative energy technology becomes more advanced in the years ahead, utility providers such as Alabama Power are expected to continue experimenting with microgrid options – with the ultimate goal of fostering a more resilient, predictable and possibly cleaner energy infrastructure.
“We sat down and tried to figure out how we could create that future as much as we can today to understand in a practical setting how we’re going to make, move and sell electricity to our customers in the future,” Rath says. “We see this as a living laboratory.”