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This solar + storage project could be a US grid game changer

A team at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a utility-scale solar and storage project that can provide power to both AC and DC high-voltage lines, and thus shore up grid stability – here’s how it works.

Most of the US power grid uses alternating current, or AC, which constantly switches the direction of electron flow. But solar and battery storage uses direct current, or DC, that flows in a single direction.

The US power grid includes a smaller number of high-voltage DC lines that are more efficient at delivering bulk power over long distances or to remote regions. 

Converting current between DC and AC requires specialized power electronics. So researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a design and control system and architecture for a solar and storage plant that can provide power to both AC and DC high-voltage lines. As a result, renewable power can be more easily and reliably transmitted.

The project is called MARS, or “multi-port autonomous reconfigurable solar power plant.” It’s an all-in-one package that includes power electronics, electrical architecture, and cybersecurity software. And because it’s plug-and-play, it’s easier and cheaper for utilities to get it online.

Case simulations in hardware that were based on two California sites revealed that MARS achieved up to 50% reduction in power loss, a 16% improvement in stabilizing AC voltage frequency, and 100% detection of cyber intrusions.

MARS can also reconfigure itself based on available energy. For example, when the solar panels weren’t generating electricity at night, MARS could continue to connect the AC and DC transmission systems and use stored battery power to supplement its operation.

The researchers found that MARS reduced electrical costs by up to 40%, as they developed an algorithm to fine-tune plant size and energy storage to maximize annual revenue.  

MARS also includes an innovative type of inverter that can maintain grid stability and jumpstart the  grid after a disturbance.

Team lead Suman Debnath team explained:

You do not want the power grid to have significant losses of power when disturbances happen.

Traditional renewable plants may disconnect from the grid or stop sending power, but we did not see that happen with MARS. It could cope better with failures in the external grid and  continue to operate, supporting the broader power system.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working with such industry partners as Southern California Edison, Opal-RT, Hitachi Energy, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Oak Ridge team and its partners are working together to roll out an initial field demonstration of either MARS components that support grid stability, or a scaled-down version of the full design.

Top comment by Jerry Wagner

Liked by 57 people

I’d like to know more about this. But our over-looked & most rapidly exploitable renewable energy resource is parking lots. Just follow France, by constructing solar canopies with integrated stationary storage batteries & vehicle-to-grid chargers on ALL existing parking lots with 80 or more spaces within 5 years, & within 3 years for big parking lots with hundreds of spaces. Do this before building more utility scale solar on remote farmland & environmentally sensitive habitat.

Produce & store power right where most energy is consumed; shade existing asphalt heat islands; reduce utility bills for tenants of leased commercial property, like neighborhood shopping centers & large apartment buildings. And accomplish all this without requiring expensive new long distance utility transmission infrastructure. These can be storage hubs of 1 to 2 mile radius micro grids networked across typical lower density solar neighborhoods. Widely distributed, cheap, reliable local power production & storage instead of centralized, expensive, unreliable utility monopoly power.

This is not a utility fix-all, but it can be accomplished very rapidly, everywhere, with existing standardized technology, expedited local permitting, & an existing trained workforce. Yes, the supporting canopies cost more than existing building roofs, but the area available is massively greater, and canopy structures will last for at least 75 years….and that’s 3 successive generations of improving solar panels & batteries.

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Southern California Edison’s senior engineer for grid technology innovation, Md Arifujjaman, said:

From the point of view of a good algorithm to track down cybersecurity problems and technology we can use on the DC side,  MARS is very helpful.

The DC technology is also promising for scaling down DC voltage for electric vehicle charging stations.  

Photo: Existing and potential high-voltage direct current lines in states with the greatest solar potential, and prospective sites for MARS/Oak Ridge National Laboratories

Read more: A Mars rover scientist is about to scale carbon-oxygen batteries

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in White River Junction, Vermont. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.