Mobile Microgrid Builder Asks, “Why Not Make Energy Beautiful?”

April 14, 2023
Ryan Wartena has ambitious plans for mobile renewable microgrids that began as an art project.

Ryan Wartena views his new company, Southern Beams Builds – which makes mobile renewable microgrids – as an art project.

“Making solar beautiful, individually and at scale, that is the art project. As is the rapid deployable renewable city,” said Wartena.

But the company’s Dragon Wings – mobile microgrids – aren’t just art; they have numerous practical applications, among them agriculture, temporary power rentals to replace diesel and gas units, and rapid installation of electrical vehicle (EV) charging stations, said Wartena. And they’re modular; up to eight Dragon Wings can be stacked together to create a 240-kW alternating current (AC) system. 

The company deployed a unit last summer at Burning Man, an art festival held annually in Black Rock City, Nevada, a city in the desert known for its intense heat. The microgrid energized a kitchen that fed 400 people per day and withstood up to 40 mph winds, said Wartena. That unit has since been purchased by the regenerative farm Blue Marble Acres for EV charging and agricultural purposes.

Dragon Wings is now testing the unit and will deliver it to Blue Marble Acres in May.

In addition, an original equipment manufacturer of EVs has purchased a Dragon Wings system.

How Dragon Wings came to be

The creation of the Dragon Wings renewable microgrid system has its roots in a software company.

Before creating Dragon Wings, Wartena founded the company Growing Energy Labs (GELI), which offers an “operating system” for energy that helps deploy energy storage. He then sold GELI to solar provider Qcells.

Dragon Wings include a retractable 60-panel photovoltaic array and is a 30-W AC energy system that fits in a 20-foot container and opens and closes quickly. The system boasts larger capacity sizes than many mobile microgrids, Wartena said. The term “Dragon Wings” refers to the wings of the unit that hold the solar panels and provide shade when necessary. 

GELI grew out of a 2005 art project, Seed of Life Activation, which appeared at Burning Man and was a large-scale interactive installation of LED lights, run on a gas generator.

But that led Wartena to the question: Why build beautiful art and energize it with dirty power?

The answer: create a mobile renewable energy system that can operate both off-grid and grid-connected and can be sized from 30 kW to 0.25 MW. When the unit is grid-connected, the grid serves as backup, rather than as a primary energy source.

In 2020, to achieve the goal of creating art with renewable energy, Southern Beams Builds and Dragon Wings were founded as a result of a design competition and collaboration with artist Zach Coffin.

EV charging promising market

One of the most promising markets for the mobile microgrid is energizing charging stations as the EV rollout picks up speed in response to climate change, said Wartena. Renewable mobile microgrids can bypass the long wait times for deploying electric charging stations that are connected to the grid.

“People who are developing EV charging want to be able to install it quickly. And part of the scenario is you have to wait for interconnection,” sometimes two to four years, he said. Real estate developers have expressed interest in deploying Dragon Wings to charge EVs in their parking lots.

Long term, the company wants to create 3,000-acre transit hubs across the US that each have 1,000 Dragon Wings for charging EVs.

More and more, microgrids are being used to provide charging for EVs. Some fleet owners are embracing microgrids because of concerns about grid reliability or because they want to manage costs or emissions with on-site energy resources. For example, Duke Energy has created a depot near its Mount Holly, North Carolina, microgrid to demonstrate how to charge EV fleets from both a microgrid and the grid.

Instead of fossil fuel generators

In addition to EV charging stations, the Dragon Wings could serve clusters of about five homes during outages and could potentially be deployed by utilities instead of fossil fuel generators.

Getting the company up and running to meet EV charging and other needs has been a product of “pure will, a small team and a couple of initial sales” that sparked a number of innovative financing ideas, said Wartena. Most traditional finance methods for renewables don’t cover mobile or modular units. “Yet again, we're bringing something new to the table, not just the technology, but also financing structures,” he said. 

When the company rents out the generators, it’s basically an energy-as-a-service financing structure. Dragon Wings also offers a rent share program under which people can buy units and put them back into the company’s fleet for rent by others.  Southern Beams Builds will then share the rental revenues with the buyers.

The idea is that the mobile generators’ infrastructure is not tied to a piece of land and continues to have value, like an EV, Wartena said.

Southern Beams Builds bases the price of its rentals on the total cost of renting gas generators, including fuel, and then sees itself as having an edge over the gas generators because the Dragon Wings are renewable.

In the next couple of years, the company wants to make 1,000 to 5,000 units a year. “The whole idea here is to manufacture Dragon Wings like EVs on production lines,” said Wartena. 

While creating art on production lines may sound contradictory, it may ultimately bring to life Wartena’s vision of deploying beautiful solar.

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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.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

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