A small wind turbine recently erected near Outpost Natural Foods on E. Capitol Drive is more than a token piece of green power.
It's a high profile element of a project by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher who aims to build one of the largest experimental microgrids in the country.
Adel Nasiri, a professor of power electronics at the UWM College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, envisions a small scale system that will generate power from the turbine, solar panels, natural gas generators and lithium-ion batteries.
Microgrids act as a free-standing power source that can provide electricity to the surrounding area and also send power to the overall electrical grid. Microgrids are gaining attention as a means to address the expense, loss of productivity and security risks associated with power outages.
Nasiri's project is one of several microgrids being assembled around the state. Some business leaders and officials with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. believe that microgrids and distributed energy systems are key areas of future growth in sales and exports.
Similar efforts include microgrid and renewable energy research at the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW-Madison, and a project at the Milwaukee School of Engineering to develop computer models for green buildings that offset all their greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency and clean energy sources.
In addition, there are plans to create a research and business accelerator inside the former laboratory space of Eaton Corp. on Milwaukee's north side, at the home of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium. That work includes designing a build-out of an Energy Innovation Center in more than 60,000 square feet of research and production facilities inside Century City Towers, the former Eaton Research Center.
Officials in energy-focused businesses anticipate growing demand for components in distributed energy and microgrid systems.
Interest in microgrids has surged since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in the Northeast in 2012 and left more than 8.5 million utility customers without power. Some experts concluded that most power outages are failure of the distribution system the poles and wires that bring power to homes.
"It's been really picking up. When we started the discussion, it was before Sandy," Nasiri said. "The way I see it this will be the trend. This is the direction that a lot of companies want to produce their own power."
Rebuilding utility models
Companies moving to generate their own energy include Kohl's Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. in Racine.
Analysts at Navigant Research forecast worldwide revenue from products in microgrids to exceed $20 billion by 2020, up from $4.3 billion last year.
New York state is pushing a plan to "rebuild its utility model, and as part of that one of the major building blocks will be microgrids. The trend toward distributed energy won't go away," said Bruce Beihoff, director of technology innovation for the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium.
Research already funded by that group "has given us a lot of knowledge on how to make a lower cost and more robust microgrid both for utility and end-user applications," he said.
In its latest round of grants, the consortium allocated funding for microgrid projects in Madison and UW-Milwaukee as well as research at MSOE. Microgrids and distributed energy are a primary business and innovation focus for the research coalition, along with technologies to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, he said.
The University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University in New Jersey have microgrids up and running, as does the Illinois Institute of Technology, in a project that incorporated battery and energy management technology from ZBB. Duke Energy has also launched a pilot microgrid project in North Carolina.
A growing focus
The UW-Milwaukee project will be able to test a variety of power configurations and technologies. It's part of a growing focus by the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences on projects in electrical engineering and power management.
Nasiri's efforts include creating and leading a Center for Sustainable Electrical Energy Systems at UWM. The center will host industry events and give the engineering school a much broader team of experts and shared lab space all of which can help the university compete for larger grants to develop better systems and products for future real-world microgrids.
For the microgrid, the building blocks of the project are already in place. In addition to the wind turbine, the microgrid will feature hundreds of solar panels, as well as batteries, power management equipment, inverters and two natural gas generators from Kohler.
Waukesha-based Odyne has donated seven lithium-ion phosphate battery packs from Valence Technology of Austin, Texas. Odyne develops hybrid electric systems for utility trucks that enable utility workers repairing power lines to operate their cranes from the battery instead of the diesel engine. Other companies that contributed equipment include energy storage and power management firm ZBB Energy Corp. in Menomonee Falls, Rockwell Automation, Eaton and LEM.
Once the various pieces of equipment are connected, Nasiri and other researchers will be able to switch the components on and off to see how the system responds. Much of the software and engineering work that's taking place now is to ensure that the different pieces of equipment can all communicate with one another.
Nasiri says researchers will be able to analyze how the system operates in a variety of situations, including being connected to the regional grid or running independently on renewable power, batteries and the natural-gas generators.
The microgrid can also be a platform for cybersecurity research, he said.
"We want to see if the companies that make components for microgrids can use this as a test bed for their equipment," he said.
Source: Journal Sentinel
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