UW-Milwaukee studies new microgrid technology

The technology could cut power bills in half

MILWAUKEE -
A UW-Milwaukee professor is studying how to more efficiently power homes here in Milwaukee.
 
The concept is called a microgrid. Rob Cuzner, an associate professor of electrical engineering at UWM, said it requires various renewable energy sources to be funneled into the grid.That energy, from solar, wind or natural gas, is used to power buildings, like a city block or neighborhood, connected to it.
 
Cuzner said power coming from the microgrid could supplement the electrical grid currently used by the bulk of homeowners.
“We want to figure out how to bring renewable energy into the lives of more people,” Cuzner said.
 
Cuzner, along with Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, are working on developing and testing a microgrid on vacant, city-owned houses in the Garden Homes neighborhood.
 
“If we can show this works in Garden Homes, this could be technology that’s useful beyond just Milwaukee,” said Andrew Haug, Resource Development Manager with NWSCDC.
 
Cuzner said most microgrids in existence take renewable energy, which comes in direct current or “DC” form, and convert them to alternating current or “AC” electricity. AC is the most common form of power used for appliances in homes today. Cuzner hopes to develop a microgrid that won’t convert the renewable energy to AC. It would use batteries to store the DC energy taken in, then send it out into buildings in DC form as well.
Homeowners would have to invest in DC appliances, like electric water heaters or LED lights, to get the full effect.
 
“These are commercially available today and cost a little bit extra,” Cuzner said.
 
He said linking up to a DC microgrid, and investing in such appliances, could have a drastic impact on a homeowner’s power bill.
 
“You could take a $200/month bill and get it down to $20 dollars a month, potentially,” Cuzner said.
 
Cuzner hopes the microgrid, if developed, could have a drastic on low-income areas like the Garden Homes neighborhood.
 
He said the typical low-income homeowner spends 16 percent of his or her earnings on utilities. That’s in contrast to the three percent spent by middle-class homeowners, Cuzner said.
 
“This is a fixed cost, and it’s a burden, and it’s one of the major contributors to economic disparity,” Cuzner said.
Cuzner said he’d like to test the microgrid on at least two to three homes within the next two years. He hopes it will be expanded to five or seven homes five years from now.
 
Howard Snyder, Executive Director with NWSCDC, said people eventually living in any homes reliant on microgrid energy will have to come up with some cooperative arrangement to make it work, since they’ll be sharing their power sources.
 
“Ultimately, we’re looking for some type of cooperative ownership model,” Snyder said. 
 
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