On the Scene: We went to the Eaton Experience Center to see the grid’s future

Eaton Xperience center

Eaton is one of those companies that does everything without you realizing it, with innovations for industries as diverse as aviation, data centers, food and beverage, rail and, of course, utilities, just to name a few. The company recently expanded its Experience Center in Pittsburgh to show the latest advances in electrical power quality, energy management and safety in a real-world, hands-on setting for interested customers, electrical contractors, consultants and builders in need of training.

In other words, it is a playground for engineers. Everything around the building, except maybe the coffee maker, is labeled, which isn’t just useful for novices like me.

eaton experience center“We’ve had engineers come in here and we’ve asked them to identify a transformer, and they couldn’t do it. They could easily point to the symbol on a design, but they don’t always see them in real life,” noted Dan Carnovale, Power Systems Experience Center manager for Eaton, which again shows the practicality and importance of the Experience Center.

The Solar Builder team stopped by to take it all in, and believe me, it was a lot to take in. Full disclosure: I was showed a lot of stuff and took a lot of notes as fast as I could. That notepad contains in-depth info on super capacitors that aid in solar smoothing, substation vs. pad-mounted transformers, balancing voltage regulation on a larger scale, aggregating string inverters in larger applications and more. The formula for cold fusion might be in there somewhere, but we will never know because they are illegible and incoherent. But that’s OK because the Experience Center isn’t about relaying those details, it’s about the experience, duh.

chris crowell at eatonExperiencing the Experience

The facility includes a functioning microgrid demonstration. There is a 24-kW solar canopy in the parking lot, 86 panels on the roof, 30 kWh in battery storage and a 100-kW generator, all of which are controlled by Eaton’s Power Xpert Energy Optimizer controller. The intersection of all those assets and optimizing their usage is at the core of advancing energy resiliency, so that Eaton’s Experience Center can operate even when the local utility grid may be impacted by an outage.

The standout display plays out two fault scenarios on a small grid that involves three local controllers and one master controller: You enter into an artificial neighborhood, complete with fake squirrels in fake trees. Suddenly, the room gets dark, a thunder rumble is heard and lightning strikes a tree that topples into an electric pole.

Scenario one plays out with no automation. The fault is triggered and the recloser fires and keeps closing, but power won’t be restored until a truck is rolled. Scenario two plays out with automation and is able to isolate the fault and restore power to the critical loads on the microgrid downstream.

Trust me, it was cool.

Animatronic show aside, it feels like we are looking at the future of the grid, not just in terms of the technology, but the mindset needed for deploying and managing distributed energy resources in ways that are much more efficient and economical than how things are done today.