Energy Innovation

Model of microgrid that UW electrical engineer, Robert Lasseter, "godfathered".

Model of microgrid that UW electrical engineer, Robert Lasseter, "godfathered".

Image By: Courtesy of Creative Commons

The majority of electricity in the United States is generated and managed by a system of large, remote power plants. These plants are connected to consumers via hundreds of miles of transmission lines.

The Oak Creek Power Plant, located just south of Milwaukee, burns 6,000 tons of coal every day. The plant is one cog in a larger machine known as the centralized grid. 

Although critically important to the country’s infrastructure, the centralized grid is terribly inefficient. Less than one-third of the coal burned at Oak Creek will become usable energy.

Alternatively, the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton, WI utilizes a smaller-scale facility to produce electricity onsite. 

A computer monitors the energy generated by a combination of sustainable sources and fossil fuels, and makes decisions on how to use or store that energy based on efficiency and cost. This type of system is referred to as a microgrid.

According to Robert Lasseter, dubbed the “godfather” of microgrids and an electrical engineer at UW-Madison, by moving the energy source closer to the consumer, microgrids reduce losses sustained during transmission and create opportunities to use energy more efficiently and optimize sustainable sources. 

Microgrid systems have the potential to drastically reduce waste, modernize the way energy is managed and allow the energy industry to meet sustainability goals. 

“Our [current] grid is the most complex system of the 20th century, but it’s, at best, 30 percent efficient,” said Lasseter.

Instead of generating huge amounts of energy from far away, with microgrids, the consumer could generate their own energy on a much smaller scale. 

The close proximity to homes and buildings in a microgrid system, however, allows a local source to utilize this otherwise lost energy. This is referred to as co-generation, or combined heat and power. The energy that is lost can be captured and reused to heat buildings and homes.

Despite the improved efficiency and security, there are several challenges associated with transitioning to the microgrid model. According to Lasseter, decentralizing the grid will not be straightforward — such a vast transformation of infrastructure, regardless of the apparent benefits, is an ambitious endeavor. 

“The future of the grid will be more determined by regulators and economics than by efficiency alone. The biggest challenge will be politics and people resistant to change,” said Lasseter.

“The intention is to revolutionize the current grid from a system that depends on inefficient centralized generation and fossil fuels to one that consistently integrates smart microgrids and sustainable source,” said Tom Jahns, a professor of power electronics at UW-Madison. 

Jahns, Lasseter and other UW-Madison researchers are leading the charge in this transformation.

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