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Part of the new DC microgrid, these commercial-scale solar arrays on the roof of the Galbraith Building deliver electric power to ECE’s Energy Systems Lab. (Photo: Afshin Poraria)

In early October, the direct-current (DC) microgrid in the Energy Systems Lab at The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) passed its final commissioning stage and became fully operational. It provides ECE researchers and students with access to commercial-scale solar arrays and energy storage facilities and — importantly — with the ability to collect real-time data.

“The microgrid forms the backbone of future DC research within our laboratory,” says Professor Peter Lehn (ECE). “It’s a golden opportunity to develop cutting-edge solutions for current societal needs, especially in the area of sustainability.”

Microgrids are distributed energy grids that have their own generation sources, storage units and load; they generate power from a cluster of local sources and thus suffer less transmission loss than centralized AC power grids. The proximate nature of the microgrid means it can better integrate renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, with battery energy storage systems and emerging DC loads.

In addition, many modern loads — such as LED lighting, high efficiency air conditioners and ventilation fans — demand DC energy as their input, which traditionally had to be converted from AC, incurring energy loss.

“The DC microgrid is a local, fully autonomous power system with ability to seamlessly exchange power with the AC utility when needed,” says Lehn. “It’s cheaper and more efficient. For example, electric vehicle fast chargers powered by DC microgrids can achieve huge charging powers without need for costly upgrades to the existing AC utility infrastructure.”

He adds, “For the future architecture of distributed energy resources, look to DC microgrids.”

The one in the Energy Systems Lab gives us a glimpse of this future. Many of the microgrid’s vital processes are housed in a nondescript cabinet called the DC Microgrid Protection Panel, which an untrained eye might walk by.

“That panel is the heart and soul of the whole system,” says Afshin Poraria, Manager, Energy Systems Lab. “This is where every signal from subcontrollers and various detection devices converge. This collection of data is then used for decision-making and monitoring. It gives us a clear window into the operation and health of the entire system.”

This project has taken many paths and involved many players, both internal and external. Alumnus Lauri Hiivala (ElecE 6T5) and his wife Jean Hiivala donated funds that were put towards the lithium-ion battery. ARDA Power supplied the DC microgrid platform, and in January 2019 WorleyParsons came on board as consultants.

All were enthusiastic partners and helped deliver a rarity for any university: a stand-alone, self-sufficient unit.

“This project is the first of its kind in the university research setting,” says Michael Cantin, Vice President of Operations, WorleyParsons, “and is attributable to the vision of the University of Toronto and the unique microgrid technology provided for the project by ARDA Power.”

“The DC microgrid is an example of what’s possible through the strong commitment and dedication of ECE professors, staff and alumni,” says Professor Deepa Kundur, Chair of ECE. “This exceptional infrastructure enables us to advance research, and inspire and more innovatively train future leaders in the field of sustainability.”

Poraria, who proposed the project long ago and helped see it through many hurdles, reflects on the intervening years: “This is the result of great collaborative work. It’s very exciting to see it finally come to fruition.”

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