What will neighborhoods look like as distributed energy resources and grid-responsive technologies become standard in new homes? Chances are they'll look something like Reynolds Landing, a suburban community outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

Southern Company subsidiary Alabama Power, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have teamed up with homebuilder Signature Homes and equipment vendors such as Carrier, Rheem and Vivint to design an energy-efficient, connected neighborhood at Reynolds Landing, with 62 single-family homes supported by a 1-megawatt microgrid.

“It was really born out of an effort by us to try to understand the future,” Todd Rath, marketing services director at Alabama Power, told Greentech Media in an interview.

What Alabama Power and its partners wanted to do, he said, was to imagine what technologies will be commonplace in the average Alabama home in 2040. The grid edge technologies being evaluated in the project include everything from controllable plugs to solar PV to insulation.  

“We wanted to project what the building codes would be and how we could use a microgrid to deliver energy to that neighborhood," said Rath. "We wanted the neighborhood to be connected, and have connected technology, so we could understand how customers interact with that technology.”

“The goal was to create a snapshot of where they thought the home of the future, the community of the future would go,” added Ram Narayanamurthy, technical executive with EPRI, in an interview.

“EPRI was leveraging some of the work it had done earlier in California on advanced energy neighborhoods,” he said, “to be able to provide the input back to Southern Company on how to work with the builder, the cost of the different measures, the integration of the measures such as advanced heating and cooling systems, advanced lighting systems, home energy management and customer engagement.”

Real-world data at Reynolds Landing

“The essence of this project is research,” said Rath.

What makes Reynolds Landing unique, he said, is that the project is not just about energy efficiency, or connectivity and the smart home, or the microgrid. The project partners purposely tied all those threads together.

“It’s a comprehensive look at how we think energy is going to be produced and delivered, and customers interacting with that, in the future,” he said.

Reynolds Landing homes are designed to be at least 35 percent more energy efficient than standard homes built to code today in Alabama. The homes are equipped with a suite of efficiency upgrades, including a super-tight building envelope, comprehensive duct-sealing, triple-pane windows, a radiant barrier in the attic, smart thermostats, connected and controllable heat pump water heaters, and air-source heat pumps for space conditioning.

For project researchers, what sets Reynolds Landing apart from other energy-efficient new residential developments is the data. Homeowners agreed to share (anonymized) circuit-level end-use data with Alabama Power and its research partners for two years.

“This provides us insight. It’s not just saying, ‘These homes are consuming 40 percent less energy.’ It’s about saying, ‘What is consuming less — and how? What is consuming more? What are the surprise factors we see?’” said EPRI’s Narayanamurthy.

Todd Rath said researchers meet face-to-face with homeowners monthly to solicit feedback on what residents like or dislike about the homes.

“We get real-world information from them. In the end, we’re really trying to understand how customers are going to be interacting with us for the future,” he said.

The Reynolds Landing microgrid

The 62 homes at Reynolds Landing are also designed to interface with what, according to Alabama Power, is the Southeast’s first community-scale microgrid. Located about three-quarters of a mile down the road from the community, the microgrid comprises a 400-kilowatt ground-mounted solar PV array, a 600-kilowatt-hour battery storage system, and a 400-kilowatt natural-gas generator.

The microgrid can operate in concert with or independent of the surrounding grid. Already the microgrid has shifted to islanding mode in response to planned — as well as unplanned — outages, said Rath. Alabama's recent deadly tornado underscored the value of prioritizing resilience. 

An open-source software platform developed by ORNL called VOLTTRON enables the microgrid to interact with and control individual end-use devices in the homes.

When homeowners moved into Reynolds Landing, said Rath, they registered their appliances and equipment, providing input on desired comfort levels for water heating and space heating and cooling.

“The grid is then able to — independently of our involvement — run those devices passively and maintain those comfort levels while trying to maximize energy savings and cost savings for customers as well,” he said. “We see a long-term vision of being able to have the grid interact with end-use devices to create a seamless experience for customers, but also allowing us to get the maximum efficiency out of the grid.”

By adopting measures such as precooling or running water heaters at night, off peak, researchers believe the days of choosing between comfort and savings may be over.

“What we’ve learned is until you get in the field with these things, you can’t understand how all this stuff is going to interact. There are so many things we’ve learned that we didn’t anticipate,” said Rath.

“Smart neighborhoods” and “advanced energy communities”

For both Southern Company and EPRI, Reynolds Landing is part of a wider portfolio of projects under development or planned focused on energy-efficient new construction and connected grid-edge technologies.

EPRI’s Narayanamurthy said for Alabama Power, and for its Southern Company parent, “a big outcome is to take the learning from [Reynolds Landing] and be able to provide an architecture and framework for creating smart communities for other builders.”

Alabama Power’s sister company, Georgia Power, is partnering with homebuilder Pulte Group and EPRI to develop another project under Southern Company’s “Smart Neighborhood” initiative, the Altus at The Quarter development in Atlanta. Unlike Reynolds Landing, this project comprises townhomes and will include rooftop solar PV arrays and in-home energy storage systems.

According to Rath, Reynolds Landing has been so commercially successful that Signature Homes was reportedly “very pleased with the speed with which the homes sold.” In addition, Alabama Power has “had a lot of interest from a number of builders who have approached us about expanding this concept. We have found a way to commercialize the energy efficiency and connectivity aspects of a smart neighborhood.”

Three more Alabama Power “smart neighborhood” projects are in the works in its service territory.

For EPRI, Reynolds Landing is one of more than a dozen Advanced Energy Communities scattered across the country designed to achieve decarbonization, zero-net energy, and/or efficient electrification.

At CitySquare, located near John Wayne Airport, in Irvine, California, for instance, EPRI is partnering with homebuilder Meritage Homes on a community with 44 townhomes built without natural-gas infrastructure.

“They found they could actually be cost-effective with an all-electric, net-zero-energy community,” said Narayanamurthy.

“The goals might be slightly different,” he added. “But the way we perceive all these advanced energy communities is that you are using the demonstrations and data to inform strategy, whether that is strategy for utilities, strategy for states, or strategy that informs policy.”