University of St. Thomas Takes on Microgrid Mission

March 30, 2023
How the University of St. Thomas Center for Microgrid Research is working to educate future microgrid engineers and fix some of the big challenges faced by the industry.

When it comes to hastening microgrid development, a number of regulations act as limiting factors and serve as an “elephant in the room,” according to Mahmoud Kabalan, director of the Center for Microgrid Research at the University of St. Thomas in a recent interview. 

For example, in Minnesota, where the university is based, some of the state’s utilities require independent producers to become utilities if they provide power to more than 15 entities.

Similar restrictions exist in other parts of the country, too. In Washington, D.C., regulators have proposed that microgrids serving multiple customers become public utilities. Many other states restrict microgrids from providing power across rights of way, which limits their ability to serve multiple properties. 

Because of such regulations, the microgrid at St. Thomas can’t send power to the university’s North Campus, said Don Weinkauf, the university’s dean of engineering. “It would be going over public roads, the local utilities’ monopoly zone. You can see the complexity. There are almost blue laws of energy distribution.”

Another challenge to speeding deployment of microgrids is cost, said Kabalan. And there’s a need for a standardized approach to microgrid design.

These are among the microgrid challenges the university’s team has been looking at since it began researching microgrids in 2014 when its School of Engineering was awarded a $1.5 million grant from Xcel Energy’s renewable development fund to build a microgrid research and test center. 

At the time, the Center for Microgrid Research was focused on providing real-world education for undergraduate and graduate students interested in microgrids. Now it is also addressing as many microgrid challenges as possible, and, along the way, providing important hands-on education to students.

“Microgrids are an essential component of a resilient future grid,” Weinkauf said. “This is a really vital research interest for our future grid.”

Last year, the research center received a $5.4 million grant from the Minnesota Renewable Development Account through the Minnesota Department of Commerce that will help expand the facility. St. Thomas is now working with the Department of Defense (DOD) on securing an additional $11 million to advance the work at the center, said Weinkauf.

The center expects to issue a request for proposals for the expansion this summer. The center is also working with the DOD to help the US Army and the other branches of the military reach a goal of deploying a microgrid at every facility by 2035, according to Kabalan.

Right now, the center’s microgrid has a rated capacity of 225 kW, which consists of 50 kW of diesel, 48 kW of solar photovoltaics and a 125-kW energy storage system. It has its own dedicated substation connecting it with Xcel Energy, said Kabalan. The microgrid load, as of now, is a 320-kVA computer bank that is used for research and testing. 

The students and faculty members created a microgrid controller from scratch that’s used by the research center.

State-of-the-art hardware-in-the-loop test beds at the center accelerate the engineering design, prototyping and testing process. These test beds allow for the interaction of real hardware, such as controllers and relays, with a virtual modeling environment. 

“This interaction creates a low/no-risk ‘playground’ that enables the testing of a multitude of scenarios that are not possible or are too risky in a real-world setting,” said Kabalan. For example, the test bed can test a diesel generator controller using a hardware-in-the-loop platform before the controller is commissioned in the field. 

The center makes the microgrid available to industry members interested in testing their microgrid products.  

With the expansion, the research center will add more than 1 MW of on-site generation at the university’s South Campus in Saint Paul. The center also wants to connect the expanded microgrid to five buildings on campus via a 13.8-kV loop. Once it’s expanded, the microgrid would connect to more than 400,000 square feet of engineering, science and arts education and research spaces, said Kabalan. The expansion plans also include electric vehicle charging infrastructure on the university’s South Campus. The research center has installed real-time data logging stations at multiple buildings to collect information about each building’s load characteristics.

To date, the research center has completed the design phase and has engineering drawing sets for the expansion.

Another aim of the center is to help train students and working professionals — engineers in the field.

“We are educating the workforce of the 21st century,” said Kabalan.

Creating resiliency is also an important goal of the center. The Midwest Independent System Operator has issued warnings recently that the grid in the northern Midwest is strained and could experience blackouts. “We need to deploy microgrids that will allow civilization to keep functioning for five days to two weeks during an outage,” Kabalan said. The microgrids would keep police and fire departments and emergency response centers running during emergencies.

This microgrid research is also important because the state of Minnesota just adopted a goal of creating a carbon-free grid by 2040. Microgrids distributed across the grid could help achieve that goal.

I think we are building a center that will be unique in the nation,” said Kabalan. “We are positioning ourselves to be a resource for the power community and want to make a substantial impact on this field.”

Interested in microgrids? Join us in Anaheim, California May 16-17 for Microgrid 2023: Lights On!

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

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