Innovation: Integrating Renewable Energy Into the Grid

Many utilities want to learn how to integrate renewable energy into the electrical grid. What better way than to help fund a test bed devoted to that very principle? To that end, National Grid announced recently that it will give two grants totaling $1 million to SUNY Polytechnic Institute for its new 356,000-square-foot ZEN building. At 356,000 square feet, ZEN (Zero Energy Nanotechnology) will be the largest zero-energy building in the world. The building, set to open this month, will be home to SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s renewable energy programs. The $191 million building will generate more electricity than it uses and will be surrounded by a two-megawatt solar farm, one of the largest in the Capital Region of New York. The building breaks new ground in demonstrating the ascendance of zero energy as the new energy standard.

Integrating renewable energy into the electrical grid is a hot issue. A new regulatory framework being adopted by state utility regulators, known as REV (Reforming the Energy Vision), makes integrating the two spheres critical to creating a sustainable energy system. According to an article in the Times Union, “National Grid gives grants for SUNY ZEN building,” “Under REV, utilities like National Grid would open up the electrical grid to more widespread use of renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and hydrogen-powered fuel cells, as well as other consumer-oriented services and products that would allow homeowners to have more control over their energy usage. The integration would be market-based, meaning that there would be incentives for both consumers and the utility to put renewable energy generation where it is most needed on the grid.”

The first phase of REV was adopted recently by the state Public Service Commission, a move that signifies the shift to including renewable energy as a major player in a forward-thinking grid. SUNY’s ZEN building is a milestone for the new zero-energy paradigm—it creates what Kenneth Daly, president of National Grid New York, calls the creation of “an ecosystem for this convergence.”

The bulk of grant money—$750,000—goes to pay for the design of the ZEN building itself. But the rest of the grant allocates $250,000 to create a new incubator grant program called Integrated Solutions for PV Installations for Rooftop Energy, or INSPIRE. That will allow iClean (a clean-tech incubator at SUNY Poly that was funded by NYSERDA, the state’s energy development agency) members to get access to ZEN’s renewable energy testing facilities. The incubator program will serve the development of new products and services that could one day be sold onto the electrical grid.

ZEN has fast become the most desired real estate in the Capital Region. M+W, part of the M+W Group, one of the largest builders of computer chip factories in the world, is the latest local company to announce plans to relocate its operations to ZEN. This also includes M+W’s new solar division, Gehrlicher Solar America Corp, which is preparing to start a $105 million, 5-year-plan to construct solar panels at SUNY Poly campuses. Tech Valley High School and the children’s museum in North Greenbush are also planning to move into ZEN when construction is completed.

The ZEN building will bring together a wide variety of cutting-edge companies, with the expectation of becoming a vital breeding ground for ongoing innovation. In the meantime, the building will serve as the sleek, commanding mascot for energy reform.

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