Manny Barrera
Manny Barrera

The Aperture Center in Mesa del Sol is far more than a beautiful, glass-and-steel, retail-office building designed by renowned architect Antoine Predock. It is the nation’s first known working application of the smart grid, the vision of energy-efficiency wonks (and 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama) to better and more specifically manage and distribute various kinds of energy when and where it is needed.

The 78,000-square-foot building is just the first step in defining and refining a broader smart grid; its array of energy-generating components, including the local power grid, solar, gas-fired generators, battery storage, and fuel cells, consolidate what would likely serve separate buildings within a local district (including residential) or, down the road, separate districts that a municipal or larger smart grid could leverage.

The key to reaching that end, and the primary focus of the Aperture Center smart grid setup, is developing the energy management program that would boost a utility’s energy distribution IQ and improve grid security.

“The goal is to create the hardware and software that can manage all the data inputs from equipment and other components and have them talk to each other to optimize the performance of the electrical system,” says Manny Barrera, director of engineering for Forest City Covington, the master developer of Mesa del Sol, a 12,000-acre mixed-use, sustainably planned community in Albuquerque, N.M. “It’s a huge opportunity to break through and effectively integrate renewable energy into the grid.”

To date, integrating solar, wind, and other renewables into the existing power grid has been problematic due to their inherently intermittent and inconsistent contributions to the overall energy pool.

“There’s a lot of pressure to achieve a 20 percent share (of renewables among all energy sources on the grid) by 2020, but currently their input can drop significantly in a matter of seconds,” causing problems for utilities and their customers, says Barrera. “A smart grid would be conditioned to manage those spikes as they happen and redistribute energy from other sources,” a tactic known as “solar smoothing.”

In fact, the Aperture Center’s 50kW solar electric array will, at most, offset only 12.5% of the building’s full-capacity electrical needs, while a 240kW-rated gas-powered generator and a 80kW-rated fuel cell array—all state-of-the-art but market available—also supplement the local power grid.

Those components, along with solar electric battery storage capacity (also critical to integrating renewables into a smart grid, says Barrera) and the emerging energy management system, can effectively “island” the Aperture Center off the local power grid, allowing the building to rely solely on its in-house energy sources and avoid peak-time rates from the utility, a tactic known as “peak shifting.”

But a widespread transition to smart grid will take time. In light of a relatively paltry $11 billion infusion for smart grid development from the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus package (the newly elected president reportedly wanted to earmark $100 billion for it), investment in the electrical utility infrastructure primarily is coming from multiple sources, including offshore, and public-private partnerships.

The Mesa del Sol experiment, for instance, is seeded with a $22 million investment by NEDO, Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, and includes PNM, the state’s largest electrical power provider, Sandia National Laboratories, the University of New Mexico, and nine Japanese companies.

After NEDO completes a two-year research effort in the project, it will turn over the smart grid to the university, providing it and the country with a premier research workshop for the technology going forward.

PNM, meanwhile, will look to integrate its existing 500kW solar field and install smart meters for residential customers, while Mesa del Sol has plans to add more buildings, including homes, and perhaps build a “smart home” model to demonstrate the benefits of renewables and the smart grid to consumers. “It’s important to educate people as these technologies become more available to the mainstream,” says Barrera.

Resistance to smart grid development, either financial, political, or from apathy or ignorance, is frustrating but somewhat expected. “The biggest hurdle is that a smart grid is different,” Barrera says. “But we need to move from outputting energy based in historic load information to responding to real-time feedback and multiple energy sources.”