New ‘microgrid’ test beds will foster state industry opportunities

October 3, 2011

Partner universities in the new Center for Renewable Energy Systems (CRES) are developing complementary facilities in Milwaukee and Madison to help corporate partners explore applications in the fast-growing microgrid industry, CRES leaders announced today (Oct. 3).

“Since microgrid equipment and systems are projected to generate more than $3 billion annual revenue by 2015, these two new facilities are an investment in elevating Wisconsin as a leader in this new technology.”

John Bobrowich

Officially opening this fall, CRES is the sister organization to the Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium (WERC) that will direct sponsored research with companies and government agencies. While WERC focuses on pre-competitive research of broad interest to the energy industry, CRES will take on applied R&D projects with individual companies or groups of partnered companies that are interested in commercializing the technology.

CRES is a synergistic partnership combining the knowledge and skills of the extensive community of energy, power and control researchers with world-class laboratories at Wisconsin’s four largest research engineering schools: the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW–Madison, Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

WERC and CRES together seek to stimulate both scientific discoveries and technology innovations that will lead to new products and processes, positioning Wisconsin as a nationally recognized hub for energy, power and controls research.

The microgrid initiative will be a major early focus of the new center. Facilities will include working microgrids at both UW-Milwaukee and UW–Madison. Both labs will be organized to partner with companies to explore and develop new technologies that are compatible with future microgrids.

Microgrids are distributed generation systems that are designed to operate as self-contained local electrical power grids with a combination of sources and loads. They can operate equally well when they are connected to or disconnected from the utility grid, often incorporating on-site renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels as well as electrical energy storage systems.

Microgrids are capable of providing highly reliable power for commercial buildings, residential neighborhoods and factories, with flexible capabilities that include the ability to export excess power to the grid as well as operating independently as “islands” when utility blackouts occur.

“Since microgrid equipment and systems are projected to generate more than $3 billion annual revenue by 2015, these two new facilities are an investment in elevating Wisconsin as a leader in this new technology,” says John Bobrowich, executive director of CRES and WERC. “Our state is uniquely positioned in this field because our collective university researchers are leaders in microgrid technology and our companies produce all of the components necessary to power and control the complete microgrid.”

In Milwaukee, the microgrid will be stationed at the University Services and Research building on Reindl Way. The facility will integrate power from on-site solar cells, a wind turbine, and advanced control and power storage equipment. UW-Milwaukee’s integrated microgrid is expected to be operational by next fall.

“UW-Milwaukee researchers have already made important advances in devising techniques for improving the storage of energy generated by wind turbines that will enhance their integration into the grid,” says Tien-Chien Jen, interim dean of the College of Engineering & Applied Science. “Our microgrid will expand that to include energy from solar cells that will be provided by the Milwaukee Area Technical College.”

In Madison, a high-power microgrid is being developed employing a combination of real and simulated power sources that are capable of reproducing the inherent technical challenges associated with intermittent energy sources. The new microgrid is being built into specialized high-bay lab space at the Wisconsin Energy Institute (WEI), which is slated for completion in early 2013. Until that time, a lower-power R&D microgrid already available in the UW–Madison power laboratories will be used to initiate CRES-supported projects.

“We want to be able to create all of the different operating conditions that are associated with renewable energy sources, including high- and low-wind days, bright sunlight and overcast skies, to develop improved techniques that will enable microgrids to adapt more naturally to these fluctuations,” says Thomas Jahns, UW–Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering and research director of CRES.

CRES is focused on pursuing a systems approach — looking at sources, loads and storage combined — to find answers for integrating large amounts of renewable energy into the utility grid. Jahns says it will take hundreds of small gains rather than a single great advance to reach the ultimate objective of a “smart grid.”

“We know how to build efficient wind turbines and solar panels, but we haven’t mastered techniques for integrating large amounts of intermittent energy sources into the grid,” Jahns says. “This is especially important as we contemplate approaches for making renewable energy a much bigger percentage of our total electrical energy production than it is today.”