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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014

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Roger Wilkens, Ph.D., Center for the Creation of Cooperation, Inc.

Roger Wilkens, Ph.D., Center for the Creation of Cooperation, Inc.

Photographer: Margaret Small

Greg Kremer, The Russ College of Engineering and Technology

Greg Kremer, The Russ College of Engineering and Technology

Photographer: Ben Siegel

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Cooperative energy partners pilot a microgrid in Athens County

The Sugar Bush Foundation-funded project connects OHIO’s Russ College with community non-profits to increase energy efficiency for low-to-moderate income households


The Sugar Bush Foundation has funded a pilot project that will link the electrical energy systems for a cluster of about six low-to-moderate income households in Athens County, enabling them to work cooperatively to reduce their use of electricity and share the costs. Called a microgrid, this technology is often used on university campuses and at industrial parks and increasingly in developing countries to bring solar energy access to villages without reliable electricity. The pilot project aims to inform a greater movement toward the Appalachian region’s transition toward using renewable energy.

The project, “Pilot Small-Scale Microgrid to Support Community-level Renewable Energy Expansion,” is led by Dr. Greg Kremer, Robe Leadership Institute Professor, associate director for the Ohio Coal Research Center and chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology and Roger Wilkens, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Creation of Cooperation, Inc. (CCC). Kremer’s team will provide the technical expertise for the project and Wilkens’ team will provide for its social organizing, facilitation and evaluation.

The Sugar Bush Foundation is a supporting organization of the Ohio University Foundation and was established through private philanthropy. It works with Ohio University and local communities by encouraging civic engagement and by fostering sustainable environmental and socioeconomic development.

What’s a microgrid?

Microgrids are defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as “a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid and that connects and disconnects from such grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or Island Mode.” The Small-Scale Cooperative Microgrid (SCMs) fits this definition but with a twist: it involves homeowners working together cooperatively on energy use.

“The SCMs gives households that do not individually have the knowledge, resources, space, or usage patterns the ability to secure their own renewable energy system and the opportunity to do it as part of a community cooperative,” Kremer said. 

For this pilot project, energy from renewable sources like wind and solar will be distributed to homes on a schedule agreed to through a cooperative agreement among the homeowners, an attempt to move toward a cooperative culture in terms of energy use. 

Wilkens explained that through this unique pilot project, homeowners will learn the patterns of their renewable energy system and, through their cooperative agreement, time some of their use of electricity to make the best use of the produced energy.

“A SCMs system educates homeowners on their energy use patterns and, ultimately, saves them money on energy costs,” he said. “This micro-grid project not only seeks to answer the technological aspects of building a microgrid, but also the social aspects involved in building a cooperative agreement among the half a dozen or so homes that are part of the microgrid.”

Kremer related SCMs to the community gardening movement that is present in Athens County and, more broadly, throughout the United States.

“Community garden members share a common location as well as knowledge and other resources to produce food for themselves and to share with others,” Kremer said. “Like a community garden, SCMs serve the individual and common good by directly saving money for the homeowner and reducing the participating households' impact on the environment. And, similar to how the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) supports the community food movement, we see CCC and ARECC as supporters of a community energy movement.”

OHIO student and community benefits

Russ College undergraduate students will be involved in the research on the project, he said. Kremer also plans to invite nearby Hocking College’s students to participate.  

“There is a great benefit for students to work on projects in our community. The controlled research work at the university is very important, but community engagement work in a much less controlled setting offers students very interesting opportunities for real-world problem solving, communication and customer relations experiences,” Kremer said. “Students usually get to see their work have an immediate impact on someone's life -- a direct example of how the power of good engineering can make a positive difference in the world.”

Wilkens’ CCC offers cooperative training to area organizations seeking to develop cooperative cultures through education, training and consultation. The Center also organizes cooperative organizations such as worker and consumer cooperatives in the Southeast Ohio region. The CCC is focusing its efforts on supporting projects concerning energy issues and building energy co-ops through the Appalachian Renewable Energy Consumer Cooperative (ARECC).

Seven clusters of homeowners have already signed on to have their dwellings be considered for the project. Wilkens said the team is creating a rubric to evaluate each potential cluster to determine if they meet certain technical and social criteria to be selected for the pilot SCMs.

Support from the Sugar Bush Foundation contributes to Ohio University's The Promise Lives Campaign, which seeks to raise $450 million by June 30, 2015, and already has secured more than $441 million toward its goal in support of students, faculty, programs, partnerships and select facilities at Ohio University. Learn more at www.ohio.edu/campaign