Harnessing the Future of Energy

by Richard J. Mark
Ameren Illinois

For most of 2016, motorists on South Neil Street, Champaign-area business owners and area residents likely took notice of what was shaping up in an otherwise nondescript business park near the University of Illinois.

Inside the grounds, a towering wind turbine peered over the tree line, turning prairie winds into power. A large array of solar panels silently harnessed energy from the sun. A Caterpillar natural gas generator ran full-throttle, cranking out kilowatts. And nearby, huge storage cabinets housed a complex system of batteries that captured the clean, renewable energy being generated and readied it for distribution onto the larger grid.

As I walked the five-acre tract with our project managers, I could not have been more proud—or impressed—with what our team had accomplished. Along with our construction and design partners, including engineering and construction contractor S&C Electric, we had just completed what industry experts now call the most technologically advanced, utility-scale microgrid in North America. And we did it in eight months.

The energy delivery system that we have all come to rely on is in the midst of transformative change. You probably don't give a second thought to the substations you pass on your way to work, or the power poles and wires that hover above you on a morning run. After all, the electric grid looks much like it did 100 years ago. But behind the scenes, and at facilities like the Ameren microgrid, we're testing innovative, new approaches to build a smarter infrastructure and fulfill the emerging demand for cleaner energy sources.

Some larger companies, military installations and even private citizens are seeking energy self-sufficiency. It is incumbent upon companies like Ameren to prepare for a disruption to the traditional utility business model. With the microgrid, we're proactively testing and developing the capabilities to manage demand and control and economically dispatch both customer-owned and utility-owned distributed energy resources. Our ultimate aim is to create a business case that will enable us to cost-effectively build and maintain these facilities for our customers.

Ameren's microgrid is a one-of-a-kind facility. It is one of the few in the world that operate at utility-scale voltages (between four kilovolts and 34.5 kilovolts) with multiple levels of control. It is also the only known microgrid in the nation capable of seamlessly transitioning the power source for an entire distribution circuit from exclusively distributed renewable generation sources to the traditional grid. This concept, known as "islanding," enables Ameren to deliver more than one megawatt to live (paying) customers without experiencing an outage. In fact, the wind, solar and natural gas assets on this site can produce up to 1,475 kilowatts and are powering 190 nearby Champaign homes and businesses. OK, so what does a distributed energy facility in Champaign mean to the Peoria Metro area?

Think ahead: 10, 15, 20 years. There will be substantial changes in how and where you get the power to run your home or business. As these renewable energy sources become more accessible, you will have a menu of options available. Like today, you may be able sell the excess power you generate and put it back onto the larger grid. Ameren Illinois, along with other delivery-only utilities, will be your partners. We'll be the experts to help you safely install and cost-effectively operate these resources. We'll integrate all of these assets under one control scheme and have the distribution monitoring expertise to ensure that it is safely delivered. In short, you'll be in control; we'll be your trusted advisers.

There are very few places in North America where you can truly see the future of energy at work. I’m optimistic about our future. iBi

Richard J. Mark is chairman and president of Ameren Illinois.

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