southern illinois university campus scene
Students walk on the pedestrian mall on the campus of Southern Illinois University in this 2013 photo. Credit: AP Photo/The Southern, Paul Newton, File

The project will provide hands-on experience for students and first responders while testing renewable energy potential in the coal-heavy region

Students at a downstate Illinois university will soon have a new opportunity to put their grid research into action.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in September announced it’s granting $900,000 to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale to help support a new solar-plus-storage project that includes a communications system with the ability to operate off-grid.

The project will include a roughly 150 kilowatt rooftop solar installation and a battery with about 310 kilowatt-hours of storage capacity at the university’s engineering school. Solar-powered communication satellites will be located throughout the campus, which the Carbondale police and fire departments will have access to during emergencies.

State officials are particularly interested in learning about the potential for more storage on the grid, whether in large university settings or elsewhere. For the university, located in a rural area of the state heavily reliant on coal-fired electricity, the installation is an opportunity to ramp up renewable generation and to have an onsite practical application of research.

Students will have several opportunities to learn from the new power system, said Spyros Tragoudas, a professor and chairperson of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. They can use it to study renewable energy conversion, he said, and to get hands-on experience with “islanding” — operating equipment with power separate from the grid to simulate efficient load management during emergencies.

The equipment will enhance undergraduates’ capstone projects in their last year of study, Tragoudas added. For example, they could set up a project monitoring energy consumption at the communication nodes stationed around the campus to learn how those nodes can be optimized in a large-scale power outage.

“Essentially, we will prepare students for the workforce,” Tragoudas said, including city government, factory planning or computer software design. He estimated that about 150 students each year will be able to use the system for learning purposes, including undergraduate students, graduate students and doctoral researchers in the engineering school. Down the line, students in liberal arts and other specialties who are interested in sustainability issues could also participate. “They don’t have to be electrical or computer engineers” to take advantage, Tragoudas said.

Studying storage potential

For the Illinois EPA, the major draw to the project was the opportunity to study storage, especially its ability to add resilience to public infrastructure. While battery storage is an emerging technology, it is not yet widely implemented due to concerns over cost and application, said Chad Kruse, manager of the Office of Energy at the Illinois EPA.

“Frankly, we didn’t want to wait for that,” Kruse said. “We wanted to see how SIU can learn from storage” and try to apply the lessons elsewhere. It’s not clear yet where might be the best fit for more investments like this, but it’s possible health care facilities or municipalities could benefit. It might also serve high schools or elementary schools, or other research universities. 

“It’s also entirely possible to build on the project at SIU,” Kruse said.

Even on its own, if it can add more reliability and extra safety measures to campus facilities, the project is worth pursuing, he added.

The new system will have enough capacity to supply about 10% of the power for one of the school’s larger engineering buildings for three days, Tragoudas said, although part of what he and other researchers hope to study is how that power can be optimized in emergencies.

“We’ll have a platform that is going to be able to isolate certain critical nodes and power them for a long time,” he said. For example, the engineering school has a supercomputer with a heating, ventilating and air conditioning system that consumes a lot of power. Researchers can test how much energy it uses from the solar panels and battery to try to predict how it would affect power availability if the larger grid goes down.

Given the risk of large-scale grid failures, like the New York City blackout this past summer and utility shutoffs to prevent wildfires in California, systems like this can be valuable local emergency resources, said Constantine Hatziadoniu, a power systems professor in the engineering department. This array will add a new layer of data to inform the research he and his team conduct, and “provide a hands-on experience to undergraduate students who study power and energy systems at the university,” Hatziadoniu said.

Tragoudas said he and other administrators are in the process of acquiring bids from developers to install the equipment. Project leads expect the array to be installed and operational by late spring 2020. Southern Illinois University is adding $180,000 of its own funding, and Kruse said he expects additional future funding, but that has yet to be announced.

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.