Work to Begin on $2.1 Million Microgrid Research and Testing Facility

The University of St. Thomas School of Engineering will begin work this summer on a facility that will be used for teaching as well as researching and testing components used for alternative-energy microgrids.

The goal of the University of St. Thomas Renewable Energy Facility is to engage undergraduate and graduate students interested in alternative energy and power, and also to encourage and support companies that develop renewable and alternative sources of electric power.

Funds for the facility are coming from an earlier-announced $2.1 million grant from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund (RDF). The state-mandated grant program is funded by Xcel customers and grants are approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Professor Greg Mowry

Professor Greg Mowry

Professor Greg Mowry, a St. Thomas School of Engineering faculty member who has extensive experience with microgrid power systems, will oversee the center’s operation.

Components of the center will be housed in or on three adjacent buildings on the university’s “south campus” in St. Paul. They are McCarthy Gymnasium, Facilities and Design Center, and Anderson Parking Facility. The St. Thomas south campus is directly south of Summit Avenue and west of Cretin Avenue.

Much of the new facility will be located on the second and basement levels of the Facilities and Design Center. About 200 solar panels will be located next door on the roof of McCarthy Gym. And generators powered by biodiesel will be located in the lower level of Anderson Parking Facility.

On sunny days, the solar panels can generate 50 kilowatts, or enough to power 10 to 15 suburban homes. Mowry said discussions are underway with multiple partners to use at least some of that energy to power electric vehicle charging stations.

Mowry expects it will take about three years for the center to be fully operational. It will be in “island mode” by 2017, which means it will be operational but not connected to the power grid. And by 2018, it will be fully connected to the region’s power grid.

In addition to the biodiesel-powered generators, the center will have energy storage systems. And instead of installing a large wind turbine on campus, the center will have a state-of-the-art wind-turbine emulator, a device that for testing purposes mimics the power output of a real wind turbine.

“Some microgrids operate independently from the main power grid, like a cruise ship that generates its own electricity,” Mowry explained. “Other microgrids, such as a collection of solar panels or wind turbines, operate in conjunction with a region’s main power grid. Companies that are developing various devices used in microgrids need to test their components to ensure they are fully compatible with the main grid. Our new testing center will help facilitate that.”

He said the new center will be able to conduct research and test distributed energy resources such as fuel cell, solar, wind, biodiesel and battery applications.

“The center will offer tremendous flexibility and will be among the most comprehensive microgrid testing facilities in the central region of the country,” Mowry said.

“A key characteristic of the facility is the community-facing, collaborative culture that we foster at St. Thomas. The purpose of the Xcel RDF is to promote renewable energy businesses and industry in Minnesota. And we will make that happen here,” Mowry said.

“This is a perfect fit for our School of Engineering,” said Don Weinkauf, professor and dean of the School of Engineering. “Companies developing and testing components for renewable and alternative energy systems will work directly with our students and faculty from the fields of software, engineering and the sciences. The center also will provide an ideal demonstration facility for St. Thomas engineering students working on their senior-design clinic projects.

“The facility represents a significant step in our universitywide commitment to becoming a carbon neutral campus by 2035. Similarly, last year, the deans of all the Catholic engineering schools from across the country pledged to drive activity on our campuses that directly address the sustainability goals outlined in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. The work at the facility shows how universities can act and interface with the community to address our greatest challenges,” Weinkauf said.

Mowry, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota along with several other degrees, came to St. Thomas in 2003 and launched the university’s master’s degree program in electrical engineering.

Mowry also was promoted to full professor this year in recognition of contributions such as this microgrid facility, or as he calls it, “uGrid.” The small “u,” he said, stands for the Greek letter “mu,” which is an international symbol for “micro.” Hence, “uGrid” is shorthand for “microgrid.”

Over the past decade, Mowry’s research has centered on alternative energy power systems and the associated power electronics, especially for the hybrid power systems used in industry and developing countries.

He has led student-faculty teams to help deploy hybrid systems in Moldova, Tanzania, and Uganda.  He recently returned from a sabbatical leave where he studied advanced power distribution methods used in smart grids and continued his research on small, reliable, alternative-energy systems used for humanitarian purposes.