The energy challenge isn’t just about replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources; it’s also about increasing access to energy, and improving how we move and control its flow. When you consider all of the energy consumed around the world, the resources needed to create it and the infrastructure built to transport it–it becomes clear that the immensity of the challenge is matched only by the opportunity it presents.
“You just simply can’t fix the problems associated with energy by working alone or on one, single dimension,” says Bruce Beihoff, Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC) director of technology innovation. “Collaboration will be key—collaboration between researchers in academia, between companies and, especially, between academia and industry.”
M-WERC is one of the United States’ largest energy, power and control clusters with 60 academic and industry members. Their work not only covers all energy sources, but also how energy is moved, converted, connected and controlled. If that sounds like a lot to focus on, that’s because it is. And yet Beihoff contends that overwhelming challenges, like those created by energy, are the reason consortia exist.
“That’s the central reason. Consortia are the engine, the backbone of innovation for big, complex problems that need system-level solutions,” says Beihoff. “The problems have become too large for any one organization to solve on their own.”
Beihoff is also the Wisconsin Energy Institute’s technical director of industry relations at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. By design, this dual appointment situates Beihoff at the collaborative nexus between industry and academia. His unique position has created opportunities to bring industry representatives to campus and highlight the research happening in the College of Engineering, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and WEI.
“I think we have already begun to establish a very strong relationship between M-WERC and the WEI,” Beihoff says. “By showcasing UW-Madison energy research at M-WERC’s Cleantech Forum, we are establishing ourselves as a hub of energy expertise and a resource for industry to connect with.”
How does M-WERC solve ‘system-level’ problems?
Wisconsin’s four largest universities—the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Marquette University—were the founding members of M-WERC. They wrote into the organization’s charter that all projects undertaken by the consortium must involve active participation from multiple schools and companies. It’s this spirit of collaboration that still drives the projects that M-WERC undertakes today.
“This year our funded projects focus on gaps in the energy, power and control industry identified by roadmaps we constructed with help from Wisconsin companies and universities,” Beihoff says. “By taking the best ideas in this complex system space and combining them, we are able to find solutions that have a big, positive social impact and handle the tradeoffs along the way.”
To address problems and find solutions at the systems level, M-WERC focuses its efforts on technology innovation, market and industry expansion, public policy support and analysis, workforce development, and strategic development. Beihoff believes a solution isn’t really a solution unless it has some presence in each of these areas.
“We live in a world of systems where more and more of our problems are relating to our ability, or lack thereof, to innovate on a systems basis,” Beihoff says. “When M-WERC talks about innovation, it’s not just with technology. It’s also developing a workforce and creating new business models that help support and really create long-lasting solutions.”
M-WERC and the WEI
M-WERC has worked closely with the WEI to forge connections between researchers in energy, power and control with industry throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest. It’s a partnership that combines the unique research capabilities of UW–Madison with real-world industry or commercial needs.
“At the WEI, we’ve had two years of microgrid research funding to essentially build and augment our capabilities to do research on microgrids in the Wisconsin Energy Institute’s high-bay lab and staging areas,” Beihoff says. “That funding has led to a lot of research at the systems level for energy storage and the integration of architecture to support the development of renewable sources.”
The WEI’s high-bay lab is also home to the Center for Renewable Energy Systems (CRES), a group that focuses on turning renewable energy systems research into commercialized technology. Through M-WERC funding, a partner high-bay facility for CRES research was built at UW–Milwaukee. Both labs were built with industry partnerships in mind to help integrate renewable sources with our current electrical systems.
“We know how to build efficient wind turbines and solar panels, but we haven’t mastered techniques for integrating large amounts of intermittent energy sources into the grid,” says UW–Madison Professor and CRES Research Director Tom Jahns, in an interview with UW–Madison College of Engineering. “This is especially important as we contemplate approaches for making renewable energy a much bigger percentage of our total electrical energy production than it is today.”