Story by Scott Stowell
Photos by John Ratzloff
The micro-grid in the middle of nowhere has generated more than electricity for the Steger Wilderness Center. Phase 1 of the Center’s island-mode power project received worldwide recognition through the annual “Environmental Challenge Award” from Cummins Power Generation. Will Steger said the prestigious award is an affirmation that the Center is on the right track.
“Our mission is being recognized as sustainable and as a demonstration model. We’re doing what we say we’re doing. Plus, it’s early on. We’re just beginning and we’re drawing this sort of attention. It reflects the importance of the Center,” he said.
Cummins is the largest manufacturer of diesel engines in the world and among the top three in generator production. Wissam Balshe, from Cummins in Minneapolis, Minn., explained that the Environmental Challenge competition is open to Cummins employees. It’s an incentive for them to develop new ideas that will reduce carbon footprint, encourage environmental sustainability and assist community partners with technical and funding components that turn ideas into realities.
Of the 88 projects that competed globally for the award, Balshe said the ideas took many forms. Along with the micro-grid at the Wilderness Center, examples included: wood recycling in Brazil; lake cleanup in Indiana; environmental sustainability and climate change education for students in India; and beautification projects in remote towns that suffer from an abundance of garbage and pollution. Each project is awarded points at progressively larger regional levels. Phase 1 of the micro-grid project continued to win and ultimately topped all others at the global level.
According to Balshe, one of the biggest challenges for the Wilderness Center was succeeding with a project that had never been attempted. It was a hybrid power system that tied a mix of energy sources together so they worked seamlessly as one integrated system, not as separate components. The innovative brainpower required to pull off this lofty goal gave birth to the micro-grid concept.
The project began by assembling a diverse energy team of industry experts. Balshe and his colleague Sha Mohammed led the Phase 1 energy team of engineers from Cummins. He also networked with energy team members, companies and schools, including Jon Kramer from Sundial Building Performance who spearheaded Phase 1 of the project.
University of St. Thomas professor Greg Mowry was another energy team member. Early in Phase 1 of the project, his students from St. Thomas contributed to the design phase. The design work and feasibility analysis took place in summer 2014 and was implemented in 2015.
Primary Phase 1 components included a generator donated by Cummins; insulation and an inverter from Sundial; batteries provided by BAE; and solar panels from Ten K Solar. Though the new generator is much cleaner than previous generators at the Center, Balshe said the team goals went even farther. They wanted to exceed EPA requirements and educate the community on the benefits of integrated energy sources.
“We don’t think that there’s one technology that’s going to be the best technology. It will be a mix of different technologies. That’s how we envision the future of energy,” he said.
Innovation was a significant criterion for judging the competition and the strongest area for the Center’s energy team. Their engineering capabilities earned points for the “most innovative and technically complex project of 2015.” But high scores were also awarded for the project’s ability to serve as a model.
“You get a lot of points if you actually educate others on how to do this,” Balshe said.
He later emphasized the impact of the Center’s energy education for everyone.
“[The Steger Wilderness Center] is very important because you have a lot of students, sometimes community leaders, policy makers visiting the Center to… participate in environmental sustainability and climate change discussions. So, we wanted to have an energy solution, a power plan, that’s actually reflective of the mission of the Center,” he said. “We had to think of ways to use renewable energy without sacrificing reliability or availability.”
Steger expressed his gratitude to Cummins for more than just the award. Their engineers were important advisors on the project.
“They gave us their expertise. We had their technicians working right beside us on the project. It was hands-on for them,” he said.
In looking to the future, Steger said Phase 2 of the energy project will incorporate wind power, increase the Center’s use of solar energy and bring in a director. “Our newest board member, Craig Tarr, will be the Wilderness Center’s ‘energy czar.’ He will coordinate all energy systems, which include electrical and heat.”
The Center’s new dining hall is also being designed in partnership with architecture students at Dunwoody College of Technology. The facility will be another model of energy use and conservation.