Microgrids energy storage project

A new project aimed at making Wisconsin a national center of expertise for energy "microgrids" was announced Monday by a team that includes all four of the state’s engineering schools and several large Milwaukee-area employers.

By using sophisticated new energy storage devices and battery systems, microgrid "energy islands" could function for some time off a main power grid if it were disrupted — and they also could maximize use of energy harnessed from renewable sources, such as solar power and wind power.

Wisconsin companies are already working to develop technologies for advanced energy storage systems, including the state’s largest company, Johnson Controls Inc., and one of its smallest ZBB Energy Corp. of Menomonee Falls. They see a market for using energy storage to overcome the challenges of renewable sources that stop making power when the sun sets or winds ease.

Military spending on microgrids is expected to grow fourfold between now and 2020, with Department of Defense spending alone expected to reach $1.6 billion by then, researchers at the market-research firm SB Energy said in a report this year.

Microgrids will be set up at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012 and at UW-Madison’s new Wisconsin Energy Institute Building, scheduled to open in 2013, according to the initiative by the Center for Renewable Energy Systems. The Center aims to conduct applied research to help Wisconsin companies develop projects for the renewable energy and energy storage markets.

The aim, said John Bobrowich, a former energy CEO who now runs the Center and the closely affiliated Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium, is to boost the state’s stature as a center of excellence for an industry that is growing quickly, in part because of heavy investment by the U.S. military.

"Wisconsin is uniquely positioned for that market because of the advanced research that our universities are doing already, and we believe these two facilities will accelerate that and give us an opportunity to allow our industries to be directly involved in the test beds," said Tom Jahns, research director at the Center for Renewable Energy Systems.

"It’s a great opportunity for us to be in the forefront of an important technology."

The initiative is part of a broader move by the industry-university consortium to create more clean-tech jobs in the state. Wisconsin ranked 13th in clean-economy jobs, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, and the new leaders of WERC are aiming for the state to crack the top 10. Wisconsin employed nearly 78,000 in clean-tech last year, the report found.

Other key companies involved in the microgrid plan include Eaton Corp. and DRS Technologies, which develops Navy warship power systems. ZBB and Eaton are working together on a U.S. Army microgrid project at Fort Sill, Okla.

In addition to UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, consortium members Marquette’s College of Engineering and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, as well as Milwaukee Area Technical College, will be involved in the microgrid research.

Microgrid benefits

Microgrids can operate with or without the benefit of a large power plant. They can be powered by local power generation — a diesel generator, wind turbines or solar panels, or a combination of those — as well as an energy storage system. Some have called microgrids the building blocks for national efforts to create a "smart grid" that features two-way communication, electric vehicle charging, and the ability to cut energy use during times of the day when power supplies run short or electricity prices spike.

In a report last month, the clean-tech market-research firm Pike Research said military interest in microgrids stems from a desire not only to reduce use of oil but to be more independent and secure, given concerns about vulnerability of the power grid to terrorism.

Other key potential markets are campuses, whether universities or corporate, with that market poised to expand to $800 million by 2017, from $100 million in 2012, Pike Research forecasts.

The plan to launch the Wisconsin microgrids will be discussed in more detail at a conference of the Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium Tuesday. Separately, the consortium announced it will be led in the coming year by executives from UW-Milwaukee and Johnson Controls.

UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell will be chairman, while Mary Ann Wright, vice president of innovation and technology at the Johnson Controls power solutions business, will be vice chair.

Earlier this summer, Johnson Controls announced a partnership with UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison that will create an endowed chair in energy storage and create three labs focusing on research on advanced batteries and materials for energy storage systems.

The microgrids in Milwaukee and Madison are designed to be complementary. The Milwaukee facility will incorporate wind power, solar power and energy storage including a system from ZBB Energy, as well as automation and control equipment from Rockwell Automation, inverter and power equipment from Eaton, and battery technology from Johnson Controls. Helios USA in the Menomonee River Valley will supply solar panels, and the system will be linked with the Milwaukee Area Technical College PV Educational Laboratory off Capitol Drive, Bobrowich said.

"We are really uniquely positioned for this business," he said.

"This is going to be a proof-of-concept system where we’re going to have to deal with real-life conditions like the sun not shining or the winds now blowing," he said. "so you have to make sure you have adequate energy storage and adequate energy controls to reduce the load in the building, without affecting the people inside."

In Madison, the new lab will build on a small microgrid lab that’s already been on campus, Jahns said. The success of that facility has led to formation of larger microgrid facilities in Ohio and California, applying research done in Madison.

The Madison lab will combine real energy generation like solar with sophisticated systems that can conduct simulations of a variety of different weather effects that could be tested.

"The technology is growing up, and there are laboratories in various parts of the world that are looking at different aspects of this," said Jahns. "That’s all the more reason why if we intend to remain as leaders in this area, we need to have world-class laboratory facilities, to be able to pursue this kind of work, and help industry in Wisconsin to take advantage of it to be leaders in the field in terms of commercial offerings." 

Thomas Content, www.jsonline.com