DOE gives $8.5 million to grid infrastructure projects

Infrastructure aid to Florida, Oregon, and New Jersey will enable states to make electric grids compatible with solar energy.

New Jersey plans to install more than 200,000 photovoltaic panels on existing utility grids, and with the help of DOE funding tie the solar panels directly into the state's electric grid.Photo by Petra Solar

While not a very sexy topic in realm of politics or green tech news, electrical grid infrastructure is a critical, maybe the critical, component that could make or break a successful U.S. switch to using more renewable energy sources.

Perhaps that's why the Department of Energy announced Tuesday it's giving $8.5 million to four electric grid projects in the final stages of completion.

As part of the Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems (SEGIS) program, from which the money comes, the DOE funds will be matched by private funds from contractors for four chosen projects.

Including the DOE funding, the four projects will total $20 million.

"Projects were selected based on the highest likelihood of commercialization of reliable products that will best enable and accelerate the integration of solar PV technologies into an intelligent electrical grid," according to a statement from the DOE.

New Jersey, which recently garnered attention in August for its Offshore Wind Economic Development Act, is home to two of the DOE-funded projects. That's significant because the biggest criticism of the New Jersey offshore wind push is that the state does not currently have the infrastructure to make offshore wind work, and some fear the cost to update could be passed on to corporate and residential electricity consumers. While this round of DOE funding is directed toward solar infrastructure integration, it could be a signal that the federal government may also be willing to fund similar projects for offshore wind with regard to transmission lines and grid connectors.

Petra Solar South, Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), and the University of Central Florida have partnered to develop modular inverters that are designed to be built and installed with little cost. The line voltage inverters have communications and smart grid capabilities that allow energy generated from a solar panel to be directly integrated into a smart grid system. It's particularly useful for New Jersey, which plans to install more than 200,000 photovoltaic solar panels from Petra Solar onto existing utility poles and tie them directly into the electricity grid.

The second New Jersey program to get almost $3 million in DOE funding involves the installation of 100-kilowatt Demand Response Inverters (DRI) with circuits designed by Princeton Power. The company claims its inverters, which were derived from military technology, can convert power with up to 98 percent efficiency in some cases. The project partners include First Energy Corp, International Battery, Center for Power Electronics Systems, Process Automation, and Tectonic.

Florida Solar Energy Center of the University of Central Florida, in conjunction with SunEdison and others, has received the DOE funding to implement inverters for both residential and commercial photovoltaic solar systems, and also smart grid power controls.

The fourth project is in Oregon and includes among its partners PV Powered, as well as Portland General Electric. The roughly $2,400,000 in DOE funds will go toward implementing smart grid communication technology, including distribution management systems for utilities that can work with solar energy sources.