How Monash University’s microgrid will help build the ‘city of the future’

The university has begun the rollout of a microgrid at its Clayton campus as part of its Net Zero initiative

A microgrid being rolled out by Monash University will help the institution cut its carbon footprint, but will also provide valuable insights that can be applied by cities seeking to cut energy consumption and reduce their reliance on carbon-heavy power sources.

The university is aiming to have all of the energy used on its campuses come from clean and renewable sources by 2030 as part of its $135 million Net Zero project. Net Zero was unveiled in October by Monash president and vice-chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner.

The initiative comprises a number of components, from striking a power purchase agreement with a Victorian solar or wind farm through to improving building energy efficiency and assessing the university’s fleet and travel footprint.

“The microgrid program is something Monash has been looking to do for a while and we’ve really used it to underpin our Net Zero initiatives,” said Tony Fullelove, Net Zero program director.

“That journey has been going for a while but this really just formalises that ambition and really gives a lot more drive and teeth in achieving it,” he said.

“It’s also a research platform as well,” Fullelove explained. “What we’re doing with the microgrid isn’t just for our campuses – it’s very much as an example of how you would do it in precincts all over Australia or in fact anywhere in the world.”

The university has already begun generating one megawatt of power at its Clayton campus — the site of the microgrid rollout — courtesy of solar panels on one of its buildings.

“A one-building microgrid, of course, is just a building — but it has set up the architecture for the whole campus,” Fullelove said.

“We’ve integrated our first building, our first solar system, our first EV [electric vehicle] chargers onto that network.”

The university has ambitions to expand the microgrid rollout to encompass all of its Australian campuses.

“We’re starting with our Clayton campus,” Fullelove said. “We’re very lucky that we have an embedded network on our Clayton campus — so all the 100+ buildings are effectively behind the meter on a 22kv network.”

The Clayton network has three rings. The university has chosen one of the rings, which includes “25 quite diverse buildings from student apartments right through to lecture theatres”, for phase one of the microgrid.

In addition to the installation of solar panels, one of the campus’ buildings will house a one megawatt hour battery.

The project is akin to building “a small city of the future” based on 25 large buildings that together have peak demand of around 3.5MW, Fullelove said.

“We’re actually reprogramming a lot of our building management systems to be able to be controlled to respond to a signal or a price from the microgrid,” he said.

“We are intentionally not running this microgrid as a campus,” he explained. Many campus-style microgrids at locations such as military bases or hospitals rely on a centralised control system and treat the campus a single customer.

“We made a decision upfront that we actually wanted to treat this like a real city and we are philosophically treating every building and sometimes even multiple parts of the building as a separate customer,” Fullelove said.

“That’s really important because it not only dictates the technology partners that we’ve chosen to go with in terms of what their capability was, but it also reflects the applicability of [the microgrid design] to, say, a new master plan development at the edge of the grid.”

The key technology partner for the rollout is Indra, with the IT consultancy’s InGRID.AGM software platform orchestrating the microgrid.

The university was after a platform that involved a low upfront capital cost but could scale as the microgrid grew. “As software as a service, Indra ticks that box,” Fullelove said.

When it comes to microgrids, people are interested both in grid reliability and in aggregating behind-the-meter assets, Fullelove said.

“What we’re trying to do is achieve both of those outcomes on the same architecture, on the same control system, on the same comms network to achieve energy management for things like aggregated demand response,” Fullelove said.

The university needed a system with a very fast response time to be able to maintain the microgrid’s stability.

The Indra system combines a SaaS platform that delivers centralised analytics with an edge computing architecture that relies on intelligent processing nodes. The Intel Atom-equipped nodes are connected via Indra’s iSPEED low-latency bus. 

The nodes can connect to a range of assets, such as building management systems, battery control systems and EV charging stations.

“We didn’t want to replace the thinking that most distributed assets already have — so we didn’t want to recalculate, for example, how to control a heating and cooling system in a building because those smarts already exist,” Fullelove said.

“What we needed was a high-speed smart control system that allows you to pass through the right information to those systems to make the right choices at the right time.”

By the end of 2018 the university expects to be generating four megawatts of power at its Clayton campus, courtesy of the microgrid. By 2020, the university plans to be generating seven gigawatt hours of electricity.

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