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Tampa Electric's COO Gerry Chasse on their award-winning net-metering alternative project

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Christopher Neely's picture
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Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

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Last month, Florida utility Tampa Electric Co. received a 2021 Top 10 Achievement Award from the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies (AEIC), a long-time energy industry association of operations experts. The Top 10 Achievement Award is the association's most prestigious award, recognizing projects and utilities that contribute to the advancement of electric energy industry operations. 

TECO's recognition comes from a pilot program it has launched with affiliated Emera Technologies to deploy its BlockEnergy product, which will connect all homes in a new 37-home development to a microgrid system. Each customer receives a solar panel on their roof and a battery storage and control component. The program provides at least 60% of the neighborhood's energy needs with renewable energy produced within the system. 

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Gerry Chasse, chief operations officer with TECO, says the system essentially works autonomously from the utility and that the neighborhood should theoretically be protected from any power outages experienced by the utility. 

Last week, Energy Central sat down with Chasse to discuss the new technology and partnership, and what TECO hopes to get out of this pilot program. 

 

Energy Central: How did this partnership begin? Did you approach Emera or did they come to you?

Gerry Chasse: Some folks at our affiliate, Emera, had a vision of developing a technology that was an alternative to net metering. This new technology tries to attract significantly more value from things like solar and battery storage. The technology is the creation of a DC microgrid and the microgrid integrates batteries, solar rooftop solar, and what's called a central energy plant to bring a greater value than just solar and indoor battery storage does alone.

 

Energy Central: We're in an age of rapid change in the energy sector. How do you make a decision around what to pilot and what to say no to? Do you have companies presenting opportunities for new technology to you all the time?

Gerry Chasse: We have companies coming to us all the time to install the latest technology. Right now, we have a goal to get to net-zero by 2050 and in order to do that, there's going to be a host of new technologies that we're going to need to employ. One of the big benefits of this technology, and the reason we've decided to deploy it, is that it should be able to supply 60 to 80% of home energy needs with renewable energy, which is an extremely high amount, and it does it somewhat autonomously to the utility. Usually, when the sun goes away, if it's a large-scale solar project, the utility has to make up that energy with other generation. In this case, for all 37 homes that are connected to this DC microgrid, it all happens autonomously. Although the microgrid is connected to the utility through an interconnection point, the utility doesn't really need to manage the interconnection point. When the sun goes away, battery storage picks up, or the central generation unit helps close the gap if there's not enough storage. From a central grid operations point of view, we don't really need to worry about it. 

 

Energy Central: It seems like this technology is preferably deployed in new housing developments instead of existing neighborhoods where installation would likely require ripping up some infrastructure. It sounds like it could be a complex equation with the utility, the housing developer and city permitting. What kind of work did it take to get something like this across the finish line. 

Gerry Chasse: Surprisingly, it took very little work because when we do a large development, we are always adding underground AC infrastructure, so adding the cabling for this DC loop was surprisingly very little work. It didn't require additional permitting. The primary difference was the solar panels on the roof. The customer did have to agree to that, so we essentially have an easement on their roof for that space and the right to maintain it. And then there is the piece of equipment called the Block Box, which is similar to a pad mount transformer that sits beside the home and has some controls and batteries in it. 

 

Energy Central: How did you choose this development and how early in the development's design did Emera have to be involved?

Gerry Chasse: It really was from the ground up. Emera, an affiliate of TECO, approached the developer and we were brought in at the same time. The developer is really our customer, they are looking to us to provide a service. The developer, in this case, Lennar Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in the nation, is a very forward-thinking company and they want to innovate and implement new technologies and they have sustainability goals as a company. So, they embraced the technology and we worked together to select this 37-home development and implement the technology. 

 

Energy Central: So, this project is being advertised as a pilot program. How long is the pilot set for?

Gerry Chasse: Four years. In order to do this pilot project, we had to go to the Florida Public Service Commission and request to provide a different type of service. You know, we've been providing a service to customers that has been the same for about 130 years or whatever it's been. This is a different standard of service, so we said that, annually, we will report on the results. 

 

Energy Central: What are some of your metrics for success?

Gerry Chasse: There are some very specific expectations for what we're going to get out of this. A goal is to ensure that those homes are served by at least 60% renewable energy. Resiliency is a big goal. We're in the hurricane territory, and because this is an underground system, really as long as natural gas continues to flow, which is also an underground system, and this is a microgrid, so if the utility source goes down, this development should be able to operate indefinitely as a microgrid separated from the utility. While we're optimistic that this is a really neat technology and in the future, it could actually become a standard of service for customers, we are very cautious to make sure that all these customers get a really good customer experience from this. If the entire technology is deemed to be a failure then we will give customers the solar on their roofs, we'll install an inverter and they will go on our net-metering program. So, they'll actually save energy because they'll get a free solar system that will offset their usage and they will save money on their monthly bills.

 

Energy Central: This is obviously a new technology and a new service TECO is providing, and TECO owns the infrastructure and is responsible for its maintenance. What has training been like for this new service and what size team have you dedicated to this neighborhood and this technology?

Gerry Chasse: While we're heavily involved in commissioning the system and learning a lot, we will actually outsource that maintenance to Emera at this time. If and when we have 1,000 of these on our system, we will develop the technicians and the technical capabilities and the processes to maintain them but it doesn't make sense for us to do that now with only 37 homes on the system. 

 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled TECO COO's Gerry Chasse's name.

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Pulikkal Ashokan's picture
Pulikkal Ashokan on Dec 3, 2021

I started my research in clean energy 30 years back to totally stop  storing energy in the batteries

and to provide 24 hours power generation at free of cost in every home.  I am successful in my efforts with a small working model.

P.P. Ashokan

Independent Researcher-clean energy

Ph+whtsp: 91 9074575071

email: Power.ashoka@gmail.com

Kerala - Cochin

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