Researchers bring more reliable electricity to Puerto Rican microgrids

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, winds snapped trees and destroyed homes, while heavy rains turned streets into rivers. But after the storm passed, the human toll continued to rise as residents struggled without power for months. Five years later, power cuts remain long and frequent.

Solar panels installed on commercial buildings create independent microgrids in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are developing new technology to manage how microgrids work together. Credit: Fabio Andrade, via Oak Ridge Laboratories

Lea y vea una version en español de esta story there video.

To bring more affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity to underserved communities like these, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are partnering with local organizations, nonprofits, and universities to build resilience in independent microgrids powered by renewable energy. ORNL is developing technology that will manage groups of small microgrids like a cluster, improving their reliability even when damaged.

Microgrids are small grids that typically have their own energy supply from nearby renewable sources like wind and solar. If battery storage is added, microgrids can be isolated and operate independently in “island mode” when the larger utility grid fails.

Version in Spanish

ORNL engineers Ben Ollis and Max Ferrari are leading a team to develop a microgrid orchestrator to be deployed in the Puerto Rican town of Adjuntas. A community micro-grid project has already been set up there, thanks to a partnership between the local association Casa Pueblo and the Honnold Foundation.

Honnold, which funds solar projects to alleviate global energy poverty, is investing $1.7 million to create two microgrids with solar and battery storage, said Honnold project coordinator Cynthia Arellano. The solar panels were installed last year and will be connected to the remaining infrastructure that will be added this year.

This is where ORNL comes in: creating a new orchestration tool to manage a cluster of microgrids so that they support and communicate directly with each other, making them more resilient during long power outages. running. For example, if a micro-grid loses part of its solar production, the adjacent micro-grid could export electricity to its neighbor, thus minimizing the impact of the damage.

“I don’t know of any microgrid controller that can communicate and coordinate with another controller,” Ollis said. “We are designing an architecture for multi-microgrid controls, so that any number of microgrids can operate independently but share information with an orchestrator that will predict when switching, routing, and connecting should occur.”

Ferrari said initial simulations indicate the microgrids could work together for at least a week. But under ideal conditions, they could potentially continue to operate indefinitely.

It’s not just a matter of convenience. “Many people died after the hurricane, and many deaths were related to power outages,” said Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, which promotes equitable and sustainable development around Adjuntas. This longtime community organization installed a solar panel in its building in 1999. After Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo was able to share the electricity it generated with residents who depended on home medical equipment such as ventilators. .

“We noticed how many people got sick who were pre-diabetic, or had high blood pressure, or were exposed to unhealthy living conditions and foods — preventable conditions,” Massol-Deyá said. “The disruption to energy security is about quality of life, and there have been long-term consequences in the community.” As a result, popular support for solar energy has gradually grown.

Community-wide benefits

Adjuntas’ microgrids include solar installations on the roofs of 13 companies, whose owners agree to provide essential services such as medicine, refrigeration and cell phone charging to residents during major power outages. In return, companies save money on electricity and avoid the use of expensive diesel generators during natural disasters, Ferrari said.

“ORNL deploying this type of controller system is going to be a really powerful tool for the community,” Arellano said. It is unusual for so many businesses and homeowners to be connected by a microgrid, she added, and the infrastructure will allow for even more to be added.

On a recent trip to Adjuntas, ORNL researchers met with local business owners to better understand their electricity consumption habits. For example, when Ferrari visited the bakery, he learned what hours the refrigerators need to be running for the dough to rise properly. He and Ollis sought to identify the most critical electrical loads so they could design a system that focuses scarce power where it’s needed most.

“I hope this will not only help manage microgrids, but also protect critical components like the energy storage unit,” said Massol-Deyá, who is also a professor at the University of Puerto. Rico Mayaguez, or UPRM.

The revenue generated from the community-owned micro-grids will fund their maintenance and expansion, as well as the installation of independent solar systems for the most disadvantaged residents of Adjuntas, he said.

A sense of urgency

Fabio Andrade is professor of engineering at UPRM and guest researcher at ORNL collaborating in the Adjuntas project. His students model strategies, tools, and algorithms for sharing solar power among microgrid users. UPRM colleague Gerson Beauchamp guides the students in analyzing solar equipment and predicting how much power it will produce. At current electricity prices, businesses can collectively expect to save up to $78,000 a year by purchasing solar power from microgrids, Beauchamp said.

Ferrari incorporates information from colleagues at UPRM into its simulations, which are tested live with real microgrid hardware at the DOE’s Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center, or GRID-C, at ORNL. The next step is to run the configuration in the facility’s brand new networked testbed for microgrids. In another year, the orchestrator will be deployed in Adjuntas.

While ORNL-derived technology could be a real lifesaver in Puerto Rico, it also holds broader potential to enable microgrids to play a key role in the global grid of the future. Smart microgrids that integrate renewable energy are poised to advance grid flexibility and resilience while supporting vital decarbonization efforts.

“The orchestrator includes a framework of algorithms that can be extended and deployed across many microgrids at any site,” Ollis said. “They could provide more reliable electricity to many rural communities at the edge of the grid. I want to see a future where we have hundreds of microgrids working together to protect critical infrastructure at local, regional and national levels.

ORNL’s work on the Adjuntas project is funded by the DOE’s Office of Solar Energy Technologies. Much of the design, configuration, and testing of the microgrid orchestrator takes place in the microgrid test bed called COMMANDER (Coordination of Multi-Microgrids and Networked Distributed Energy Resources), which part of the GRID-C facility funded by the DOE’s Office of Electricity.

Other ORNL team members working on Adjuntas’ microgrid project are Guodong Liu, Aditya Sundararajan, Mohammed M. Olama and Yang Chen. Other academic partners include the University of Central Florida and the University of Tennessee.

UT-Battelle operates the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The largest supporter of basic physical science research in the United States, the Office of Science works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Translation credit: Max Ferrari, ORNL.

Originally posted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.


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