The lab's more agile model grid could do the rebalancing almost as quickly as electricity moves, at the speed of light. Called "BlueFin," it attracted customers who wanted to tinker with it. Some were interested in "islanding," using it as the backbone for an alternate power grid that could sustain itself with emergency generators and large amounts of solar and wind energy if and when the central power grid went down.
Among the entities interested in that were the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. DOE awarded Fort Collins a $6.3 million grant to show how it could drop the energy consumption of the city's downtown business district by 20 percent by connecting emergency generators, solar arrays and a variety of other backup systems including a few electric cars.
Experiments of the 'Great Connector'
Willson, realizing that both the city and the university had committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, convinced both of them that the experiment, called "Fort Zed," would help. He also lured in some downtown businesses.
"Bryan Willson is a great connector and leader. He got us involved in Fort Zed," explained Bryan Simpson, a spokesman for New Belgium Brewing, which makes craft beers including its leading brand, Fat Tire. The brewery had been working on energy-saving projects of its own, including running power generators on methane produced by bacteria digesting wastewater from the brewing process.
That, plus a solar array on the roof of the brewery's bottling plant, meant New Belgium could cut its electricity demand by half and still keep pumping out beer.
All this and more were plugged into Spirae's test bed for the Fort Zed experiments, which took place on several days in July and August. Michael Randall, maintenance engineering supervisor at Colorado State University, had worked with Spirae technicians to rewire all the campus air conditioning systems so their fans could be dropped down to 40 percent of their normal electricity use with the flip of a switch. Although summer temperatures hit 90 degrees, "we didn't have any complaints," he explained.
The university missed its 20 percent reduction target the first day but hit it on the next test, turning on emergency generators and using solar power from big rooftop arrays. It plugged in big machines at night to make ice, using it to help cool some buildings during the day. "We plan on expanding this on our own," explained Randall, because the university is interested in saving money by cutting higher electricity prices charged during peak demand times.
Playing with a smart building
Kathy Collier, who manages a city program called ClimateWise, said 350 local businesses have signed up for a program to reduce their energy, water and garbage every year. "We benchmark them," she said. The city requires them to account for resulting savings. The program has raised its goals three times in four years, largely because businesses are comparing notes with each other on how much money can be saved.
There will likely be more businesspeople coming to Fort Collins. The city and the university are talking about a second round of Fort Zed tests, bringing in more solar and wind power and cutting the city's vulnerability to an electricity outage even lower. Spirae, which ran the tests, has attracted a new partner, Boeing, to sell its grid operating system to the military. The Pentagon wants to have the ability to "island" military bases so they can continue to operate when central grid systems go down.
Some cities, including New York City, which suffered massive power losses from Superstorm Sandy, are also looking for ways to create islands of essential activities with their own power, so blackouts can be resolved more quickly.