Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood integrates a microgrid into a community filled with high-performance homes containing energy-efficient systems and connected appliances. The innovative initiative, which includes solar panels, battery storage, and a natural gas-fired backup generator, connects 62 homes with a future-focused system. The project serves not only as a model for new residential communities, but lessons learned could also benefit existing customers in more-established communities.

Do you remember the futuristic animated television program The Jetsons? George Jetson lived with his family in the Skypad Apartments in Orbit City. His wife Jane was a homemaker. The couple had two kids (Judy and Elroy), a dog named Astro, and a robot maid named Rosie. Their home was filled with space-age gadgets that seemed unbelievable in the days of corded, rotary-dialed telephones and black-and-white TVs. (Incidentally, The Jetsons was the first program ABC produced in color, but only a handful of stations were capable of broadcasting in color when it first aired in 1962 and few viewers had color TVs.)

My how times have changed! Fast forward to 2020 and Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood where many of those “crazy things” from The Jetsons are now being used regularly. No, there aren’t people driving space vehicles around communities perched high in the sky, but today’s smart homes can have flat-screen TVs, robotic vacuum cleaners, video chat devices, 3D printers, voice-recognition systems with computers capable of answering questions, and plenty of residents who own smart watches and drones.

And as technology has evolved, so have the power needs of customers, which is why Alabama Power partnered with Signature Homes, Southern Company, PowerSecure, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and other technology vendors to introduce its Smart Neighborhood. “Equipped for tomorrow and efficient today, this state-of-the-art community of 62 homes will feature emerging energy-efficient technologies, materials and appliances, and a community-scale power system,” the company said when it rolled out its unique plan about three years ago.

“Customers today expect energy solutions that fit their lifestyles, and that is the idea behind Smart Neighborhood by Alabama Power,” John Hudson, who was senior vice president of Marketing and Business Development at the time, said in an April 2017 statement. “Our goal is to continue to enhance our customers’ experiences and to ensure they have more control over their energy use.”

State-of-the-Art Power Delivery System

Alabama Power issued a request for proposal in 2016 for the turnkey construction of the microgrid facility. PowerSecure won the bid, which was released on November 8 that year. The project officially kicked off on May 17, 2017. PowerSecure provided the engineering and construction management for the project with high-level oversight provided by Alabama Power and Southern Company. Less than a year later—May 8, 2018—the project was unveiled during a public ribbon-cutting.

“Smart Neighborhood is unique because it is truly a first-of-its-kind project to incorporate all these components into one project—and then scale it up to 62 homes. It is essentially lots of smaller projects and a large variety of technology within one,” Todd Rath, director of Marketing Services and Smart Neighborhood Project Sponsor with Alabama Power, told POWER. “As technology continues to evolve, we understood that bringing all these factors together would be crucial to see how neighborhoods of the future—think 2040—will function. This helps us better plan our resources and identify opportunities to provide energy solutions for our customers to help prep for that future.”

“It’s very notable that this was the first residential community microgrid in the Southeast,” said Jonathan Tugwell, project application engineer with PowerSecure. “A key thing to keep in mind while designing a project like this is to determine the system goals. Is this to balance the neighborhood loads for efficiency purposes, provide resiliency to the neighborhood during a loss of utility, or support the community with clean renewable generation? Generation assets can always be added to a system to provide more redundancy and resiliency, if the system is properly designed upfront.”

A long list of companies supplied equipment and/or worked on various aspects of the Smart Neighborhood project. Among the suppliers were:

  • Canadian Solar, which provided solar panels (Figure 1).
  • Campbell Scientific, which provided the meteorological station.
  • NexGear by PowerSecure, which provided the switchgear.
  • Simplex, which provided the load bank.
  • Samsung SDI, which provided batteries.
  • Siemens, which provided battery inverters.
  • SMA, which provided solar inverters.
  • Power Solutions International (PSI), which supplied the natural gas-fueled generator that was packaged by PowerSecure in its PowerBlock generation system.
1. Smart Neighborhood by Alabama Power is located in the Reynolds Landing community at Ross Bridge in Hoover, just south of Birmingham, Alabama. Among the features incorporated into the microgrid is the solar array shown here. Courtesy: PowerSecure

“The controls surrounding the system and the system microgrid controller are an important part of any microgrid, and it needs to be properly designed and programmed to meet the system’s expectations,” said Tugwell. The Smart Neighborhood’s microgrid controller was designed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“The microgrid controller system was implemented for the first time at the microgrid,” Rath said. “The controller’s ability to manage the microgrid’s multiple power sources—solar panels, battery, and natural gas generator—and work with resources within the homes to shift load to efficiently serve customers was, and is, cutting-edge.”

Another unique piece of technology incorporated into the project was GroundAware, a ground surveillance sensor system supplied by Observation Without Limits—or O.W.L.—which is a joint partnership between Dynetics and Alabama Power. GroundAware is a family of advanced, affordable, and reconfigurable surveillance sensors that detect intrusions in real time and instantaneously provide actionable information on potential threats. It uses digital beam-forming radar to continuously monitor areas of concern up to a range of 15 kilometers in all weather and lighting conditions.

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Constructing a Unique Community

“The project was completed in stages that were spread out enough to maintain a high level of safety,” said Philip Zicarelli, business developer with PowerSecure. “At PowerSecure, safety is the top priority in everything we do. Before we break ground on any project, a safety plan is created and reviewed by our team to identify risks and best practices to complete the project tasks without compromising safety. We start each day with a safety meeting and fill out a job safety analysis form that identifies each task, the sequence of steps, potential hazards, and safety precautions. Everyone on-site must take part in the meeting and sign off.”

And the focus on safety was evident in the crew’s performance. “Our safety team made a site-specific safety plan for this project that led us to zero OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] recordables, near misses, or vehicle incidents,” Zicarelli reported. “What was nice about this project was that we got to work in a private area without being disturbed by anyone not associated with the project. The minimal amount of people on-site made achieving a perfect safety record an easier task.”

The weather posed more of a challenge for the construction team. There was a large amount of site work necessary and rain caused some delays early on. Furthermore, part of the property had a steep slope down to a creek; heavy rain had the potential to wash soil and/or sediment into the stream, which was not allowable. This meant managers had to stay vigilant and monitor environmental remedies regularly—sometimes several times per day—to ensure protective measures remained adequate.

“We were very close to a residential community also,” Zicarelli said, “so we agreed to stop work at 5 p.m. each day to ensure there was no noise disturbance.” But the time restriction didn’t cause any trouble—the job was completed on time and on budget.

“I was really impressed by how quickly the solar array was completed,” said Zicarelli. “The solar crew was around six people total and they knocked out the entire array in basically a week!”

The cost of the project was $5 million and included a variety of components beyond the microgrid hardware itself. Rath said the lessons learned from the project will help Alabama Power understand when and where these systems may be more applicable in the future. The microgrid is part of the company’s existing electric grid, providing power to the grid and surrounding areas as well. Because it is part of the grid, customers living in the smart homes pay the standard Alabama Power rate.

Three new projects are under development across Alabama as part of the Smart Neighborhood Builder Program, which uses research findings from the flagship project. The newest project in the Smart Neighborhood initiative is an announced partnership with Birmingham’s housing authority and local builders to incorporate energy efficiency and home automation upgrades during the construction phase of housing units to help make energy use more affordable for families and seniors.

I think it’s safe to say that with a community-scale microgrid, rooftop solar panels, battery energy storage, a super-tight building envelope, comprehensive duct-sealing, triple-pane windows, radiant barrier roof decking, smart thermostats, connected and controllable heat pump water heaters, air-source heat pumps, and electric vehicle chargers, as well as home automation and security packages including smart door locks, lights, and voice control, the Jetsons would be quite happy living in Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood. Wouldn’t you? ■

—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor