Jeff House, Envision Board Member

As the “future” becomes the “present,” one trend that started decades ago and continues to grow is the electrification of our lives. It seems that everything we touch today has a motor and a circuit board. And so, the question becomes: How are we going to continue to energize this growing array of electrical things? Could renewable energy be the answer? Let’s see what the signals say.

You’ve likely seen those windmill farms along the highway or have read about several solar farms under development around Wisconsin. And you’ve probably heard about hydrogen – the most abundant chemical substance in the universe and, potentially, the solution to all our energy needs. But renewables offer challenges, and, if renewables are the future, then renewable energy will have to meet three significant challenges: generation, storage, and delivery.

Understanding the Challenges

Renewable energy poses well documented issues, starting with intermittency – the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. Efficiency is a concern, and costs can be prohibitive, although those last two issues have seen continued improvement in recent years.

Then we face the challenge of demand.  When these renewables are producing energy, the demand might not be there, and you’ve got to put those electrons somewhere (or throttle back the energy generation). Enter: energy storage, or batteries. The energy storage market is changing rapidly, and right now lithium is answering the call.  But lithium has its own challenges, from rising cost to fire hazards to sustainability.  Research and development of energy storage is big business. Eventually energy storage will make decarbonization of reliable electric power systems affordable.

Finally, even if we can produce renewable energy (or store it when it is needed), we still need to deliver it.  For years we’ve been told the U.S. infrastructure, including the electrical grid, is frail and outdated.  In fact, Congress has passed several bills in the past few years trying to address this very issue.

We all saw the headlines: Hurricane Ian wipes out the Vero Beach and Fort Meyers area (except for Babcock Ranch); the Russian war on Ukraine targets the grid; an attack on a North Carolina substation disables it for days; and a garden variety of winter storms bring snow, ice and wind, which conspire to incapacitate power lines. Is there a solution?

The answer could be in microgrids.

A microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability. According to the U.S. Department of Energy Microgrid Exchange Group, such a system can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously.  To meet the electricity demands of its users, though, a microgrid must have a generation source. So, what are the signals telling us about our chances of meeting those three fundamental challenges stated above: generation, storage, and delivery?

Energy Generation Signals

Signals about renewable electricity generation abound.  I’ve already mentioned renewables like wind and solar.  Efficiency and cost reduction are making them viable additions to any energy production, but there’s work to be done, and solar and wind continue to evolve.

Most electrical generation signals are related to hydrogen.  Signals suggest many promising directions, from small energy fuel cells (think of replacing a battery in your car versus filling up at a station) to additions to microgrids for commercial and industrial applications. The Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton, Wisconsin, is a great example.  Operation of the Preserve includes a combination of wind, solar, fuel cell and batteries.

There are about 15,000 hydrogen cars on the road today.  The trucking and shipping industry might be the biggest benefactors when it comes to hydrogen fuel cell technology.

And we find signals for fusion reactors, not the fission we are accustomed to like Point Beach State Forest in Two Rivers.  Fusion offers greater energy density (but needs greater energy input to make that energy) and produces no long-term radioactive waste.

Energy Storage Signals

One can find plenty of signals in the energy storage space, but the strongest signals are coming from low tech ideas.  Flow batteries using zinc/bromine is a 140-year-old concept, and high-temperature thermal batteries like the sand battery are not new. These energy storage systems are already being tested in real world applications.

Even the private homeowner has storage options. Pour that rooftop solar energy into a battery so that, when the sun goes down, you still have power. Such a system is integrated with the grid, so you always have energy.  Even if the power goes out, the battery kicks in, and you probably don’t even know there is a power outage.

Power Delivery Signals

The signals about microgrids are also strong, although we have a long way to go to update and upgrade the grid. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 offers plenty of incentives for the development of microgrids. In fact, the bill offers up to 30% tax credits for development of microgrids – so watch for more signals.   

More and more communities are considering microgrids as part of their long-term sustainability plans.  Remember Babcock Ranch in Florida?  Despite Hurricane Ian’s powerful assault, Babcock Ranch never saw a flood or a power outage or any major disruptions. Why? In addition to the developers’ planning initiative to consider a hurricane’s high-water threat, they implemented a microgrid system using solar power. And in California, power companies can turn off the grid (where available) and have microgrids (solar systems) provide power during peak hours. One such example was the use of an elementary school’s solar roof array this past summer. This option helps reduce the risk of fires starting from power lines.

So, what does it all mean for Northeast Wisconsin? The signals clearly indicate that we need to invest in all three phases: energy production, storage, and delivery. How we get there is unclear. The answer might lie in a public-private partnership, a grass roots effort where individual homeowners and small businesses work together, or perhaps a major investment by a developer. Regardless of where we start, it’s time to begin planning for a new way to electrify Northeast Wisconsin.