The Center for Microgrid Research: A Hub for Clean Energy Innovation

May 19, 2023
The Center for Microgrid Research at the University of Saint Thomas provides students and clean energy industry leaders with unique opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research and the development of state-of-the-art microgrid technologies.

What is the Center for Microgrid Research?

The future of energy

The Center for Microgrid Research, which opened in 2020, provides a unique opportunity for students to engage with cutting-edge clean energy research. The Center conducts research, develops new technologies and promotes policies that help improve microgrids and distributed energy resources (DER). It also provides education and training programs to help professionals develop new skills and knowledge related to microgrids and DERs. In doing so, Director Dr. Mahmoud Kabalan hopes that the Center can help accelerate the transition to a carbon-free energy system while providing opportunities for job creation and economic growth.

Defining the Terms

As mentioned, the Center for Microgrid focuses on developing microgrid and DER technology. A microgrid is a localized electric grid that can function independently of the larger grid. It can also be connected to the grid. Microgrids can increase grid reliability because they offer backup if there is a problem with the grid. A DER produces and supplies power on a smaller scale than a microgrid. Some examples of DER include rooftop solar panels, backup batteries and emergency diesel generators.

Features & Capabilities

The Center for Microgrid Research has unique features that make it possible to conduct cutting-edge research. These include a 48 kilowatt (kW) solar photovoltaic array, one 50 kW biofuel Genset generator (a Genset is a portable power supply source consisting of an engine and a generator) and a 125 kW lead acid battery storage. The Center’s microgrid is capable of emulating different electrical sources using state-of-the-art electrical power research equipment.

Unlike most microgrids, the Center’s microgrid does not have one single, dominant energy source, allowing for more flexibility and making it easier for researchers to pursue a wider variety of projects. The microgrid is also able to connect to the grid or operate independently as an island. Not only does the Center benefit students and research, it also allows companies to explore new ideas and see how they work on a microgrid. In doing so, they are testing new technologies that could play an important role in the clean energy transition.

In the three years it has been open, the Center’s capabilities have evolved. Already, the Center’s microgrid system has added new power sources, energy storage systems and loads, increasing its complexity. This has enabled researchers to simulate more realistic scenarios and test the performance of microgrid components under a wider range of conditions.

The microgrid is now also capable of testing renewable energy sources within its system, allowing researchers to study the integrations of different levels of renewable energy and its impact on the overall system. In addition, the Center designed, tested and validated the advanced monitoring and control systems they now use. These homegrown systems allow researchers to monitor the performance of the microgrid and DER components in real-time and to optimize their operation.

Finally, the hardware-in-loop (HIL) test beds at the Center have been expanded. HIL test beds are used to simulate scenarios on the microgrid by allowing researchers to plug a lightbulb, generator or battery into a computer model that simulates what would happen if the hardware were to be plugged into the microgrid. The HIL test beds now include a wider range of components and subsystems, such as power electronics, protection systems and communication networks, than they did before. This enables researchers to simulate and test more complex microgrid systems and to develop new technologies and strategies for improving their performance and reliability.

The Center's role in MN’s Clean Energy Transition?

As it grows, the Center provides unique opportunities for students and clean energy professionals to participate in research, develop new products and build connections.

A resource for students

A resource for students

Students who work at the Center (typically 6-10 per semester, and potentially more in the future) gain valuable hands-on experience that prepares them for success in the clean energy industry. Some of the benefits students receive from the Center include:

  • Hands-on experience: Students gain firsthand experience working with cutting edge microgrid technologies.
  • Professional development: Students attend clean energy workshops, seminars and conferences.
  • Research opportunities: Students participate directly in research projects about microgrids, DERs and renewable energy integration. This allows them to hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as gain experience in research methodology.
  • Career opportunities: Connections students make while working at the Center can lead to job opportunities after graduation.

All in all, the Center provides students with skills that make them emerging leaders in clean energy. When they graduate, they enter the workforce with unique experiences that prepare them to propel the clean energy industry forward.

A resource for clean energy professionals

The Center also offers noteworthy opportunities for industry professionals and their companies. Clean energy businesses can collaborate with the Center for Microgrid Research in numerous ways, including:

  • Collaborative research: Clean energy businesses can collaborate with the Center to develop new technologies and strategies for integrating microgrids with clean energy sources.
  • Testing and validation: Clean energy businesses can use the Center’s microgrid testbeds to validate the performance of their products and technologies in a real-world setting. This allows them to enhance their products and gain a competitive advantage in the market.
  • Education and training: Professionals such as engineers, technicians and project managers can participate in education and training programs at the Center. Clean energy businesses benefit from these programs by garnering the skills and knowledge to design, build and operate microgrids.

These opportunities allow businesses to develop innovative ideas, cultivate connections and improve their existing products.

Contributions to MN's clean energy future

Renewable energy future

The Center is already making a meaningful impact on clean energy in Minnesota. That being said, Dr. Kabalan has many ideas about how the Center’s impact may grow in the future. With additional funding, the Center will be able to extend its research activities and undertake more ambitious research projects related to microgrids, DERs and the integration of renewable energy sources. Dr. Kabalan also hopes to continue upgrading the Center’s infrastructure so that researchers can simulate more complex microgrid systems and test new technologies and strategies. It could also include the addition of new power sources, energy storage systems and loads and the integration of advanced monitoring and control systems.

“I expect the Center to grow into one of premier microgrid and DER applied research Centers in the Nation,” said Dr. Kabalan.

Over the next decade, microgrids will play an increasingly important role in the transition to a resilient and sustainable energy system, which means the research and development done at the Center for Microgrid Research will grow even more valuable. Microgrids will likely become more commonly used in rural and urban areas alike since they help make the electricity grid more reliable. At the same time, experts like Dr. Kabalan predict that microgrid technology will continue improving, new uses will emerge for microgrids and that microgrids will become better connected to the electricity grid.

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