Microgrids Can Help Institutions Gain Energy Independence, Engineers Say

Nov 27, 2018

During ice storms or heavy snowfalls, many people often worry about their power going out. But for a nature preserve near Appleton, that's less of a concern because its headquarters is part of what's called a microgrid.

The 700-acre compound generates its own power and stores it for use, greatly reducing the preserve's reliance on electricity provided by the local utility WE Energies.

The Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve isn't just a place to hike trails and see birds and wild animals. It's also, according to the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation, the site of the only fully operational microgrid in the state. The term microgrid comes from the energy for the buildings being generated there, and the preserve operating free from utility-supplied power.

A Menasha-based electrical engineering firm, Faith Technologies, designed the microgrid system. Team leader Caramy Biederman recently showed WUWM some of the power-generating devices.

An overhead view of one of the two solar arrays at Bubolz.
Credit Photo Supplied by Faith Technologies

“This is our Tesla battery, 100-kilowatts. Tesla battery, 420-kilowatt hours. Our 25-kilowatt fuel cell. Our 2000-gallon hydrogen storage tank, and our 60-kilowatt prime-rated Kohler generator,” he explained.

The generator is powered by natural gas, so not all of the power sources at Bubolz are carbon-free. But the largest source, 676 ground-based solar panels are clean. Faith Technologies Engineering Director Brian Zager says they're also reliable.  

"What's nice is, if you're getting any sunlight, you're getting something off these panels. I've been out here on a solid overcast day and we're getting 40 percent of rated capacity off of it," he said.

Zager says the panels have even been able to generate a tiny amount of power from moonlight. He says the solar arrays also put out enough heat to get snow to slide off the panels. 

The Microgrid Immersion Center at the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

All the energy generated at Bubolz needs a computer to monitor it, and help store electrical current for later use. That happens at a building not far from the headquarters. 

It’s called the Microgrid Immersion Center, as Steve Nieland of Faith Technologies, recently explained to a tour from a microgrids conference organized by the Milwaukee-based Midwest Research Energy Consortium, or M-WERC. Nieland told the group how much energy was being generated and used at the site, and joked there was enough leftover electricity to donate some kilowatts, back to the local utility, WE Energies. 

"I say donating because, per the terms of the connection agreement as long as you have 299 kilowatts or more energy in your microgrid, they won't pay you anything for it. They'll be more than happy to take it, but they won't give you anything. If you're 299 or less, they will pay you the princely sum of about 3.5 cents a kilowatt hour," Nieland said.

Milwaukee-based WE Energies told WUWM in a written statement that it's ''closely monitoring the evolution of microgrids and evaluating the potential benefits they may provide to our customers and the power grid." The company adds, "As microgrid technologies mature, we'll assess how they can add value to our already nationally recognized excellence for reliability."

Computer screens inside the Immersion Center track energy production and use at Bubolz.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District already runs a smaller microgrid for its treatment plants. Elsewhere in the U.S., some hospitals are developing microgrids to reduce the chance that a storm — or even a terrorist attack — would cut power needed for patients. 

Microgrids also need good security, of course, and all the solar panels, generators and other devices aren’t cheap. Faith Technologies won't give a dollar value for the microgrid at Bubolz due to the extensiveness of the system, but energy consultant Gary Radloff says cost is always a factor.  

"But, I think the biggest factor is getting the concept into the market and people accepting it. You know, quite frankly, with the so-called 'big grid and large utility system,' it's been running our electrical system for 100-plus years. It's very entrenched, people are very used to it. This is really a paradigm shift and quite an alternative, and it's going to take time for people to get comfortable with it. But I do think that will happen!" Radloff exclaimed.

Big utilities may have to change their business model at some point if more institutions opt for the energy independence of a microgrid, he says.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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