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By David Mickey
With the installation of Tesla batteries and solar panels at the island electric generator, Ocracoke has jumped to the vanguard of modern electric distribution as the first microgrid laboratory for the state’s electric cooperatives.
This effort is a cooperative venture by the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation, which owns the island’s 3-megawatt diesel generator, and Tideland Electric Membership Corporation, which supplies the island’s electricity.
Ocracoke is a pilot project from which NCEMC and Tideland hope to learn just how community microgrids will best complement their larger electric
“This is a learning laboratory for Tideland,” said Heidi Jernigan Smith, company spokeswoman. “We’re exploring the potential for a microgrid.”
Smith and other company officials were on the island in early November for the installation of 10 4,000-lb. Tesla Powerpack batteries and several solar panels at NCEMC’s generating plant on Odd Fellows Lane.
“We’re setting up here for the electricity of the future,” said NCEMC’s Bob Beadle, project manager, while he was on the island for the installation.
The U. S. Department of Energy defines a microgrid as “a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid and that connects and disconnects from such grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or island mode.”
When connected to the grid, the batteries are charged during periods of low demand and the electricity is available to the grid when demand peaks and power is more expensive.
The batteries essentially are for storing energy, Smith said. By no means could they power the island during an outage, she said, but they could assist the generator during start up to overcome the initial demand placed on the generator which often exceeds capacity.
For example, on a freezing day in March 2015, power went off from Hatteras to Ocracoke due to “galloping lines,” or ice on the power lines that shorted the power. Tideland tried to start the island’s 3-megawatt generator, but even in the winter with mostly just residents here, the electric usage exceeded the generator’s capacity numerous times, Smith had said at the time.
“The Tesla batteries could potentially help us get over that start-up load,” Smith said. “It will be interesting to learn what benefits can be derived from the various microgrid components over time.”
Using the same battery technology that powers Tesla’s electric cars, the Powerpack system has its own temperature controls and is constructed for all weather conditions and environments.
Since coastal environments are the most challenging for electric providers, Ocracoke presented the perfect experiment site, Smith said.
Data collected from these items will help the co-ops, including Tideland, learn more about the role of new technologies in future electric service delivery.
“This is new territory for everyone,” she said. “We’re gaining valuable information for the future.”
That future may be that when the power goes off, Ocracoke will manage its limited power resources as a separate system independent of electricity generated at distant power plants.
“Tideland is pleased to serve as host for NCEMC’s first microgrid project and the opportunity it affords our employees to learn about next generation energy technologies,” said Paul Spruill, Tideland’s chief executive officer and general manager. “We are also appreciative of our sister co-ops across the state for funding this project, which will all stand to gain from our collective knowledgebase as the energy industry evolves.”
Ocracoke’s microgrid, in addition to the Tesla batteries and solar panels, also includes Tideland’s residential Ecobee “smart” thermostats,
That’s why Tideland has extended the program for several more months where they are offering free Ecobee thermostats and installation for homes and businesses.
To participate, visit Tideland’s website at www.tidelandemc.com/ecobee.
These energy-saving devices enable Tideland to better manage the island’s load when the co-op’s system has excessive demand or during a local power emergency.
With these thermostats, Tideland can remotely change thermostat settings a few degrees to reduce peak electric loads.
The Ecobee can issue control alert emails to keep members informed on the system’s status.
Homeowners can also monitor and control their thermostat settings remotely using their computer or a mobile device. The “smart” thermostats are expected to save homeowners up to 23 percent on their monthly bills.
Eligible homes must have central air or a heat pump and a wi-fi connection to participate.
Microgrids are part of the growing national trend away from large, centrally controlled power plants to local systems using more efficient, renewable energy resources.
Connie Leinbach contributed to this story.
David Mickey is a life-long resident of North Carolina. He first visited Ocracoke in the early 1950s. After retiring from his work as a community organizer, he moved to Ocracoke with his partner Sue Dayton. Currently he spends his time on the beach, helping out at Roxy’s Antiques and writing articles of local interest for the Ocracoke Observer.