Technology and design are marrying to make the seemingly impossible, possible. Wired shares the innovation behind an affordable housing project that has turned itself into a virtual power plant, but not without a lot of collaboration.
KATELA MORAN ESCOBAR has always dreamed of being a homeowner, but she never imagined her first house would double as an energy experiment. Last July, Escobar and her family moved into Basalt Vista, a new affordable housing project in the small town of Basalt, Colorado, just north of Aspen. The development is a bulwark against the skyrocketing housing prices in Roaring Fork Valley, but it’s also a living laboratory to test advanced power grid technologies that could turn every home into an appendage of a decentralized power plant.
Basalt Vista is designed to be an all-electric community that produces as much power as it uses. Each home comes outfitted with an electric vehicle charger in the garage, a large battery pack in the basement, and a roof covered with solar panels. The homes are linked together as a microgrid, a self-contained electricity distribution network that can operate independently of the regional electric grid. Their energy systems work together to balance the energy load across the neighborhood—the solar panels harvest energy, plugged in EVs can store electricity as needed, and large battery packs can supply power when the sun isn’t shining.
But what makes Basalt Vista’s microgrid unique is that it autonomously allocates power. There’s an internet-connected control box in the basement of each home running experimental software that continuously optimizes electricity distribution across the microgrid and the flow of energy to and from the larger regional grid. When one home produces more energy than it needs, it can autonomously make the decision to redistribute it to its neighbors or store it for later. “We don’t have to deal with any of the machinery,” says Escobar. “The house works all by itself.”
Basalt Vista is a testbed for a so-called “virtual power plant,” a network of self-optimizing energy resources that unbundles the centralized utility and distributes it across the grid. Like microgrids, virtual power plants consist of distributed energy systems such as rooftop solar panels, EV chargers, and battery packs. The difference is virtual power plants aren’t really designed to disconnect from the greater grid. Instead, they aggregate and control distributed energy sources so they can perform the functions of a large centralized power plant—generating and storing electricity—for the wider grid.
This virtual power plant could serve as an antidote to the inherent variability of renewable energy systems by efficiently matching supply and demand across widely-distributed electricity producers and consumers. For now, the technology exists in the basements of Escobar and her neighbors at Basalt Vista. But if the experiment is successful, it may one day control power for millions of other families.
“Traditionally, we’ve delivered electric service over a one-way transmission and distribution grid from centralized power plants to relatively passive consumers,” says Bryan Hannegan, CEO of Holy Cross Energy, a small nonprofit utility that services Basalt, Aspen, and other nearby communities in Colorado. “That architecture is changing dramatically and consumers are now producing as well. Power plants are no longer large and centralized; they’re numerous and distributed.”