A map showing Ocracoke Island in North Carolina
A map showing Ocracoke as a thin white strip in the Atlantic. (Photo: Google Maps)

Even on a map Ocracoke Island looks vulnerable. One of the
most remote islands in the Outer Banks, the thin strip of land can be
reached only by public ferry, private boat or private plane. The island’s isolation
is exactly what appeals to its year-round residents and its many summer
tourists. That isolation can also create power delivery challenges.

Typically, the island gets its power through underwater cables from Cape
Hatteras to the north. Those cables are at the end of a long, exposed overhead
transmission line that reaches from the mainland. The power supply can get
expensive, particularly during times of peak demand, like a hot summer
afternoon when thousands of vacationing tourists run their air conditioning.
Even during the winter, when the population is back to just the island’s
several hundred residents, demand can peak during cold February mornings, triggering
higher electricity costs.

The highway in Ocracoke looks like a river following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
The highway in Ocracoke looks like a river following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
(Photo: Byron Miller for the Ocracoke Observer)

A barrier island, Ocracoke is exposed to severe storms that
can cause flooding, high winds and power outages. In the past, the island
relied on a diesel generator owned by the North Carolina Electric Membership
Corporation (NCEMC), the power supply organization for most of the state’s
electric cooperatives, for back-up power.

The generator also helped when demand was very high for
electricity—those cold winter mornings and hot summer days already mentioned.
Supplying some of that energy with an alternative energy source, such as the
generator, is a form of “peak shaving.”

While the generator is large enough to supply the demand for
the community during mild weather, it can’t power the entire island during
times of peak energy use. Another limitation of the generator? Diesel fuel,
beyond what is stored on the island at the plant, must be transported by ferry.

NCEMC and Tideland Electric Membership Corporation, energy providers
to the island, recognized these challenges and saw an opportunity to bring new
energy resources and local control to the island.

To do that, the state’s electric cooperative leaders built a
microgrid. Beyond supporting a goal of increased reliability, the Ocracoke
microgrid allows the cooperatives to test new technologies and system
components, and ultimately, better use the grid to serve cooperative members in
new ways. A microgrid generally operates while connected to a wide area power
grid but when there is a power interruption, the microgrid can be isolated and
operate on its own using local energy sources.

NCEMC developed several concepts for renewable energy
generation, battery storage, demand response, and energy efficiency to offset
Ocracoke’s electrical demand. For system engineering, integration, and
installation, they called on PowerSecure, a leading energy solutions provider
owned by Southern Company.

Ocracoke’s rooftop solar array above the diesel generation plant.
Ocracoke’s rooftop solar array above the diesel generation plant. (Photo: PowerSecure)

PowerSecure worked with NCEMC’s grid modernization team to
engineer a robust, scalable microgrid with diesel and solar generation, as well
as battery storage. The microgrid also includes local controls with remote
dispatch that can be operated in concert with existing and new demand
management systems, including Ecobee thermostats and water heater controls deployed
at homes and businesses throughout the island.

With PowerSecure as a partner, the electric cooperatives’
innovative approach creates a more reliable and resilient power system for the
island, integrates new resources, and enables the cooperative to reduce demand when
energy use peaks. Here we take a look at how it was done.

Ocracoke’s diesel generator is an important back-up energy
supply and the power plant has been enhanced with green, renewable solar power.
Solar panels mounted on the roof of the plant now provide 15kW of renewable
energy as the sun moves across the sky. Placing the panels on the roof of the
existing building saved valuable real estate, which is limited and expensive on
the small island.

On average, land on Ocracoke Island is les than five feet
above sea level. To limit the risk of equipment damage in the event of flooding
during a major storm, the PowerSecure team built a raised concrete pad to serve
as a platform. Side note: All of the supplies had to come by ferry and the
concrete was mixed onsite. Not an easy job.

Freshly poured concrete will harden into a solid, raised base to house new high-tech equipment.
Freshly poured concrete will harden into a solid, raised base to house new high-tech equipment.
(Photo: PowerSecure)

A bank of Tesla Powerpack batteries, installed by
PowerSecure on the elevated concrete pad, provide local energy storage and are
another component of the microgrid.

The Tesla battery lineup sits on the new concrete pad.
The Tesla battery lineup sits on the new concrete pad. (Photo: PowerSecure)

Inverter units, located at the end of each of the battery
lineups, give the system a great deal of flexibility. They enable the battery
units to be charged by sources other than the solar panels. That helps when the
days are short or the weather is poor. The batteries can connect not just to
the solar panels but also to the grid or the diesel generator, when necessary.
They charge during periods of low demand, such as late at night and early in
the morning. The electricity is available when demand peaks and power is more
expensive—or whenever back-up energy is needed.

Tesla Powerpack
Tesla Powerpack (Photo: P. Vankevich for the Ocracoke Observer)

Each nearly 4,000-pound Tesla Powerpack is made up of 16
individual lithium-ion battery pods. Built with a cooling and heating system
adapted from the Tesla Model S automobile batteries, the Powerpacks can store 1
MWh of energy, which is roughly the amount of electricity used by 330 homes in
one hour. That isn’t enough to power the island during an outage, but it can
assist the diesel generator during its start-up, when initial demand often
exceeds the generator’s capacity. That makes for a smoother transition when
outages occur.

The final key features of Ocracoke’s microgrid—Ecobee
thermostats and water heater controls—are
found at homes and businesses throughout the island.

The Ecobee is a “smart” thermostat that saves energy for
members. It also enables them to work with the cooperative to better manage the
island’s electricity load when there is excessive demand or during a power
emergency.

With these thermostats, the cooperative can remotely change
the thermostat settings a few degrees to reduce peak electric loads. Members are
informed when a demand response event occurs, and they can override thermostat
adjustments at any time. Members can also monitor and control their thermostat
settings remotely using their computer or a mobile device. The smart
thermostats are expected to save participating customers 5-10 percent in energy
consumption, while also benefitting all of the island’s inhabitants.

The Ecobee smart thermostat saves energy, helping both the customer and the energy company.
The Ecobee smart thermostat saves energy, helping both the customer and the energy company.
(Photo: Apple)

Water heater controls are another tool for demand response
that are located within members’ homes and businesses. These controls allow the
cooperative to make small adjustments in hot water temperature in the storage
tanks, but allow hot water to flow when the consumer calls for it. These
adjustments generally go unnoticed by consumers, but taken together, can
significantly reduce power demand.

These distributed energy resources—the solar panels and batteries—were
integrated by PowerSecure controls and system engineering. The integration of
these resources, along with the existing diesel generator, ensures the system
works together to give the island a smart, functioning microgrid that can
communicate with the NCEMC utility group.

Ocracoke’s new microgrid makes the most of the small space it occupies.
Ocracoke’s new microgrid makes the most of the small space it occupies. (Photo: David Mickey for the Ocracoke Observer)

Ocracoke is on the cutting edge of a growing national trend
away from large, centrally-controlled power plants to local systems using more
efficient, renewable energy resources. One of the first locations in North
Carolina to have a microgrid, Ocracoke’s system serves as a pilot project for electricity
suppliers to learn how community microgrids can best complement the larger
electric distribution system. Such creative approaches allow even isolated
communities to achieve a clean, more resilient grid.

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