UC San Diego team is awarded $39 million grant to build an energy testbed

Solar panels like these will be included in a testbed designed by UCSD and funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
Solar panels like these will be included in a testbed designed by UC San Diego and funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
(Courtesy )

The National Science Foundation has awarded UC San Diego a $39 million grant to build a testbed to connect and monitor energy resources on a large scale.

Distributable energy resources, or DERs, are “anything on the power grid that can produce or flexibly consume power,” said Jan Kleissl, a professor in UCSD’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and principal investigator for the project, which is called DERConnect.

Examples of DERs are water heaters that can be programmed to delay heating water until certain times of day, electric vehicles and programmable air conditioning systems, Kleissl said.

Previous systems would be left on continuously; these are “smartized,” Kleissl said, “meaning that we are able to program them to consume power” at certain times without inconveniencing the consumer.

DERConnect will connect more than 2,500 DERs on the campus power grid, “merging internet and energy together,” he said.

Connecting the DERs on one testbed grid will enable researchers to try varying approaches to power usage “in a real testbed rather than a computer,” Kleissl said.

This type and scale of energy monitoring is important to help researchers determine what to prioritize in energy needs and sources, Kleissl said. He cited the recent local heat waves that triggered rolling blackouts as illustrations of “why the new architecture for grid response is needed.”

During that period of warnings about limited energy resources, power company SDG&E “may have found that San Diego is short by [a certain number of] megawatts in power, and that means we would have to ramp down electric vehicle charging, we would have to ramp down lighting systems, air conditioning systems together to make up for that shortfall,” Kleissl said.

Kleissl, who also is director of UCSD’s Center for Energy Research, said “that metric is certainly the most important one, being able to accept and comply with that request for a change in power.”

Similar programs to monitor power demand exist, but Kleissl said “what’s new now is that we need a lot more of it.”

“With solar power being more valuable, and more extreme weather, we will have more demand for flexibility,” he said. “That triggers us having to think bigger. We shouldn’t think about 1,000 devices; we should be thinking about a million devices.”

In managing so many devices, Kleissl said, “it becomes important to think about communication, how to best execute decisions [about power use] reliably and quickly.”

The testbed project aims to upgrade how certain DERs are connected to the power grid. Currently, most electric vehicle charging stations are not controlled, Kleissl said. “If somebody plugs in, the charging station systems give the full amount of power and the charging is completed as soon as possible. But the car may linger for two more hours; we’ve wasted some ability to be flexible.”

“Our testbed is about connecting to these charging stations and then being able to dynamically adapt to the grid demands and how much they charge,” he said.

UCSD professor Jan Kleissl is principal investigator for a new testbed for energy resources funded by a $39 million grant.

Kleissl and his team began the work to apply for the National Science Foundation grant in February 2019. The grant is part of $125 million the NSF awarded for three projects in what it calls mid-scale infrastructure. The mid-scale program seeks to enable scientific breakthroughs “that can only be achieved by this scale of investment,” according to a statement from NSF program manager Kandace Binkley.

The two other programs funded are a Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array of ocean study floats — a project that includes UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography — and a high magnetic field beamline to research design and implementation of cutting-edge X-ray and magnet technology at Cornell University.

UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla is part of a consortium of research institutes recently awarded a $53 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build and deploy 500 robotic floats around the world.

Kleissl said being awarded the grant “feels good,” since only three projects were chosen for funding.

Beyond securing the funding, developing the “communications architecture” for the testbed has proved to be one of the main challenges for the project, Kleissl said. “Exchanging information between buildings, between all the DERs together … is like speaking 100 languages at once. It requires a lot of software development to make it seamless and efficient.”

“I’m very impressed with how engaged industry partners are in the process,” he added. “It’s great to see that people realize that it’s actually not a short-term investment but a critical long-term system. It’s been impressive to see how ingenious people out there are to invent these different small controllers and computers and device protocols to enable this.”

The testbed is slated to be ready by 2022, though Kleissl aims to have it running before then. The data collected will be free and available to the public — a condition of the grant funding.

“We want to build a community of different users [who] will come together and record what they did,” Kleissl said, perhaps to share different approaches to energy use.

“We hope that anybody in the country, whether it be industry partner or academic, can test how the communications between different DERs can be laid out to be most efficient and effective,” Kleissl said. “It is about energy, there’s no doubt about that.” ◆