This winery in Minnesota will soon be powered by a microgrid project. Credit: Mike Ekern / University of St. Thomas

Patrons of a Minnesota winery will be sipping reislings and reds next fall under lights powered by a microgrid if all goes according to a plan developed by the University of St. Thomas.

Located around 35 miles north of St. Paul in Chisago City, the St. Thomas School of Engineering has been working with WineHaven on a unique collaboration to create a microgrid using solar and wind on the its grounds.

Engineering School Dean Don Weinkauf sees it as a way for his college to play a larger role in the growing area of renewable energy.

“The intention of the facility is to match our research interests at St. Thomas with the local business community as well as help the state meet its objectives for renewable energy,” he said.

St. Thomas received a $2.1 million grant from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund to build a microgrid research and testing facility to showcase how distributed energy can be used effectively, Weinkauf said.

WineHaven was chosen because it had land available and because one of its principals, Kyle Peterson, has a close connection to St. Thomas – he teaches intellectual property in the School of Engineering. Moreover, Weinkauf said the winery was the site of a wind turbine installation several years ago and is “a forward-thinking company.”

Peterson says WineHaven made a significant investment in the wind turbines 15 years ago but the project failed. The experience did not deter the winery from renewable energy opportunities, however, and he sees the microgrid as having plenty of potential benefits beyond just powering the visitor’s center.

“There are a lot of societal implications that could come from the research,” he said. “I hope renewable technologies like this could work at the neighborhood scale so we could avoid more smokestacks on the horizon in the future.”

WineHaven agreed to allow the microgrid to be housed in a five acre section of its property and will use electricity generated to power a recently built 10,000 square foot visitor center. “That’s where the load is,” Weinkauf said.

Greg Mowry, an associate professor at St. Thomas who has overseen the project’s development, sees microgrids as a way to create a path toward more distributed energy. By having energy produced close to where it will be consumed efficiency is naturally improved, he noted.

The plan calls for:

  • Roughly 200 solar panels covering an area the size of a football field, rated at 50 to 60 kilowatts of capacity.
  • A 100 foot high wind turbine with retractable components that allow it to be raised and lowered depending on wind volume.
  • Two diesel generators.
  • Battery storage space.
  • Room for additional elements, such as fuel cells or other emerging microgrid technologies.

Though the great majority of the power will derive from clean energy sources the two diesel generators will initially rely on fossil fuel.

“I think diesel generation gets a bad rap but we’re going to test (the generators) to see if they can be run off biodiesel, which would make them carbon neutral,” he said. “We’re going to test up to B-100 to see if it can work as the fuel source.”

Much of the initial energy mix may depend on the cost of the technology, Mowry said. If solar panel prices continue to plummet St. Thomas may decide to increase that component of the project, he said.

The WineHaven testing center will have a connection to Xcel Energy’s grid, which will essentially serve as a backup should the microgrid fall off-line.

One of the goals of the WineHaven project is to create a system that has “power levels that are meaningful in a practical application sense,” Mowry said. With all the components in place the microgrid should be able to create from a quarter to a half of a megawatt of power, enough to get larger businesses and nonprofits interested in the concept.

“We are trying to develop a simple way of creating microgrids that perform well,” Mowry added.

Mowry is no stranger to microgrids, having recently helped engineer one for the Steger Conference Center in Ely. He’s developed hybrid energy systems with St. Thomas students and faculty in Moldova, Tanzania, Mali, Uganda Mali and Liberia.

Naturally, the idea of a microgrid at WineHaven has created some interest among people in Chisago City and in the energy community. The winery will not be offering tours of the microgrid, nor can it be easily seen because its located in a remote area and because of the danger inherent in electrical facilities, Peterson emphasized.

St. Thomas will host tours of the microgrid at some point in the future, but only for research-related purposes, said Mowry.

Local city officials embraced the microgrid. “I think it’s great,” said Chisago City mayor Bob Gustafson. “WineHaven is a very forward-thinking company and very energy-minded. The winery has been great to work with on this project.”

In fact, the microgrid project has encouraged Chisago City to consider – along with several partner communities – a proposal from a developer to add solar to a jointly operated wastewater plant north of the city. Renewable energy “is the wave of the future and we want to be ahead of the curve,” he said.

St. Thomas, a Catholic university, is one of the largest buyers of wind power in the state through Xcel’s Windsource program and has solar energy on its student center and on a dormitory, Weinkauf added. The university’s Climate Action Plan calls for it to be climate neutral by 2035.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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