A Tour of California’s First Residential Microgrid Community With 219 Net-Zero-Energy Homes

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In an unassuming town situated between Los Angeles and San Diego, you’ll find the future of the American neighborhood. I’m not talking about the Jetsons-style sci-fi; I’m talking about California’s first-of-its-kind residential microgrid community. This community is a real-life example of the new energy landscape — or what we at Schneider Electric™ describe as Electricity 4.0 — the convergence of digital intelligence with electricity.

Shadow Mountain, in Menifee, California, consists of 219 smart homes. Each home is equipped with its own solar-plus-battery system, which is pretty cool already. But KB Home, a national homebuilder who led the project, took it a step further by deploying a microgrid system. This microgrid connected all 219 homes and their batteries with a shared centralized 2-megawatt (MW) community battery — a first.

For each net-zero-ready home, this extra layer of backup power offers an unparalleled level of zero-carbon resilience when the grid goes down.

At Innovation Summit Las Vegas, I got to tell the story of how this community was built. It’s a story about innovation and partnership, about the elegance of solving big challenges with complex technology that feels simple to its users. And in this article, I’ll share it with you, too.

A closer look at California’s first residential microgrid community

During the planning process, I got a front-row seat to the action. I was lucky to work alongside some of the most forward-thinking minds making possible Electricity 4.0 and the next generation of smart, connected homes. This was a true partnership going beyond KB Home and Schneider Electric. The project was supported by a U.S. Department of Energy grant and fellow participants include SunPower; Southern California Edison; and the University of California, Irvine.

Jacob Atalla, a central player in the project and VP of Sustainability Initiatives at KB Home, shared how the partnership kicked off: “KB Home’s vision is to be the most customer-obsessed homebuilder in the world. The electrical innovations that Schneider have really was the spark. Why can’t we do resilience with microgrids in residential communities?”

A major promise of Electricity 4.0 technologies such as microgrids is that they enable bidirectional energy flows — the ability to produce and store electricity at every level of the grid-to-plug journey: the home, the community, and the grid. That makes energy more resilient and gives homeowners choices over how to source — and therefore pay — for energy.

The Shadow Mountain project team wanted to maximize cost-effectiveness and resilience in a state where energy is expensive and wildfires, among other extreme weather events, are causing long-term power outages. To do so, the team equipped each solar-powered home with its own “decentralized” home battery storage. In addition, the plan called for a “centralized” community battery to provide about 1.5 to 2.9 megawatt hours of battery storage. This extra boost of capacity delivers additional off-grid power capacity that’s measured in days — not simply hours.

The Shadow Mountain microgrid community, my friends, is the future. It’s a concrete way to advance the clean and sustainable energy economy. And it’s possible only when electricity and digital go hand in hand.

In addition to meeting clean-energy and power availability outcomes, this community microgrid gives homeowners the third outcome they really want now more than ever: lower energy costs — both today and in 10, 20, 30 years from now. That’s because the electrified and digital microgrid bakes in efficiency and price predictability.

“We are producing 40% to 50% more energy efficiency in these homes, and we certified with the Department of Energy’s Net-Zero Ready Certification,” said Atalla. KB Home’s deep commitment to energy efficiency is a big reason why it recently won the inaugural Schneider Sustainability Impact Award. This award was given to five other North American companies and recognizes pioneering leadership in decarbonization.

Keeping ever-growing electricity costs contained is especially important as homeowners incorporate electric vehicles (EVs) into their home-based power loads. In California, where state regulations call for EV adoption to grow 15x by 2035, we’re seeing this shift in a big way. That meant the system needed to accommodate wide-scale EV charging and bidirectional energy flows — and was designed with rooftop solar to maximize cost-effective, zero-carbon power.

A complex project solved by committed partners

Although the Shadow Mountain microgrid project offers an exciting and compelling example for clean communities of the future, it was not without complexity. There is the community microgrid itself, but there are also 219 end-users requiring load control. That’s not an easy task to ensure these distributed “nano microgrid” systems in each home can communicate bidirectionally to the community microgrid — and to the Southern California Edison grid.

In this context, the partnership was crucial for solving these complexities. The design involved 219 rooftop solar systems powering different loads, home by home, with individual home batteries that need seamless coordination with the community battery and the utility grid, should the power go out. The cool thing about designing these batteries to work in concert is that it reduced the per-house battery requirements by 50% for load smoothing, and by 90% for peak shaving. It’s not about more infrastructure; it’s about smarter infrastructure.

In the new energy landscape, homebuyers need help navigating complexity and identifying the right solution. It’s a huge opportunity for the builder or contractor to serve as a trusted advisor and thereby create a seamless customer experience.

Automating the grid-to-plug homeowner experience

Despite all these separate pieces, the team still sought a seamless grid-to-plug experience for community members. A big piece of that seamless interconnectivity is the Square D™ Energy Center — the central nervous system of the home.

All 219 homes were equipped with this energy center, which is an all-in-one panel combining solar, battery, and EV charging connections within a single solution. On the inside, the energy center is doing quite a bit; it’s intelligently connecting to the central microgrid, managing the homes’ energy sources, tracking energy use at the device level, and feeding data to the homeowners’ smartphones. But on the outside, it’s a simple white panel, offering sleek aesthetics and user experience to homeowners. That makes it a well-suited fit for the new energy landscape — lots of brains to make a big impact, with plenty of beauty and simplicity for the end-user.

Indeed, the truly smart home has arrived. That means that a single central system enables the homeowner to control everything instead of having to open multiple apps for gadget-by-gadget control.

Learning from the first of many community microgrids

It’s true that any time you approach a first-of-its-kind project, it’s easy to ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” You face the “Yeah, buts” daily. For this Shadow Mountain microgrid community, however, the result was worth all the complexities and challenges, which were exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns during the main phases of project planning. In tackling these challenges, KB Home and its partners have raised the bar on what smart homes can do for the future of energy — and really for the future of our planet.

When the community is fully completed, homeowners will be paying less for their energy “right out of the gate,” noted Matt Brost, VP Sales New Homes, SunPower.

We at Schneider expect that, pretty soon, we’ll see a lot more communities that look like Shadow Mountain. After many lessons learned from this project, the industry now has a roadmap to move further, faster into the new energy landscape.

Electricity 4.0 is already changing how the homes of the future are built and powered — and that’s what we at Schneider are here to help you understand. This blog post is the first of a four-part series that will share technology close-ups, use cases, and business tips to help contractors and homebuilders make the most of the opportunity.

We’ve also published an e-guide that captures all these ideas in a single place: 3 Opportunities to Expand Your Business in the New Energy Landscape.

.And to learn more about the innovative technologies that make the Shadow Mountain community microgrid possible, head to our Connected Home page.

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