Power to the Students

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Power to the Students

May 14, 2015

A student-led winter-term course imagined a way to redesign campus in the face of growing climate risks

by Kevin Redmon '09.5

It’s a super-storm of unprecedented size, barreling down on the East Coast. Widespread flooding knocks out power plants, and gale-force winds fell electrical poles like saplings. While crews struggle to reach rural areas, families, farms and businesses are stranded without power for weeks.

But what if a microgrid, an adaptive way of wiring and powering a community, could change all that, and keep the lights on in the wake of a disaster? Environmental Studies major Isaac Baker ’14.5 thinks it’s a resiliency strategy worth considering.

Baker first discovered microgrids last summer during the inaugural School of the Environment. Jack Byrne, Middlebury’s Director of Sustainability Integration, tasked students with reading through Vermont’s recent climate study, identifying critical vulnerabilities in the state’s infrastructure, and crafting College-specific solutions to those risks. 

Middlebury has long spurred its students to pursue ambitious projects, such as the 2007 carbon neutrality initiative, which included a student-led winter-term course. “We’re bringing learning out of the classroom and into the boardroom,” says Nan Jenks-Jay, Dean of Environmental Affairs. “This work is integral to the future of sustainability at the College. And, by design, it’s not prescribed. It’s not handed to you in a course description. There are no boxes to be checked. If you’re hooked on an idea at Middlebury, you have the opportunity to take it and run with it. You’ve got a wide open field in front of you.”

As Baker began to delve into the project, he discovered the fragility of the power grid. Two weeks later, he presented his proposal for a microgrid, which would build out renewable generation on campus and rewire the College to fundamentally change the way it interacts with the utility. During day-to-day operation, the microgrid would significantly reduce Middlebury’s carbon footprint and energy costs by shortening transmission distances and “intelligently” purchasing kilowatt-hours at off-peak prices. In the event of a crisis, the campus would go into “island mode,” allowing it to produce enough energy from solar, biomethane, and biomass to remain self-sufficient, and leaving it unaffected by downed lines elsewhere in the region.

“It was a cursory plan,” Baker recalls, noting the complex electrical engineering involved. “But Jack immediately told me it sounded promising and he wanted know more. And so I came back this fall excited to carry it even further.”

Baker spent the autumn researching the intricacies of microgrids as an independent study with biology professor Steve Trombulak. He interviewed Department of Energy experts, electrical engineers, and infrastructure consultancies. “I wanted to create a checklist that other colleges could use to decide if a microgrid was right for them,” he says. At the same time, Baker began to craft a proposal for a student-led winter-term course on the topic. Trombulak, along with Biology professor David Allen, helped him develop a syllabus, curriculum, and reading list. The students in the course would draft a conceptual plan for a Middlebury microgrid, which could later be brought to the Environmental Council, and eventually the Administration, for consideration.

Baker’s experience—first immersing himself in a topic, and then designing a class around it for his peers—highlights the collaborative, iterative approach to learning that now defines a Middlebury education: each step in the process laid the foundation for the leap that came next. “Learning doesn’t end where the syllabus does,” says Jenks-Jay. “It continues to be nurtured. It becomes the work of a lifetime.”

Baker and his classmates spent four weeks engaged in self-directed research and small-group projects. They interviewed outside experts on difficult topics. “It was satisfying for everybody involved to draw on expertise outside of the College,” says Byrne, who continued to serve as an adviser to the project. “Sandia National Laboratories sent one of their most experienced microgrid engineers to work with the students for two days.”

In the group of 13, which ranged from first-years to super-seniors, Baker assumed the role of delegator-in-chief. “Everyone took on a mini-project,” he says. “We had one person focused on lead-acid batteries, one on steam-chillers, and another on system cost optimization.” Baker’s personal highlight, however, was a weekly visit from Director of Facilities Services Mike Moser, who would talk all things electrical and answer any questions students had bumped up against during their research. “He’s so smart, and a fantastic teacher,” says Baker. “It was rewarding to get Facilities excited about a student project.”

And that, says Byrne, is a testament to the rare ethos of collaboration that drives sustainability at Middlebury. “Our campus is a learning laboratory. There’s a real willingness among staff to encourage and enable student learning—even while on the job. Mike took three hours out of his weekly schedule to really dive into it with students.”

At the end of the term, the group had produced a “ten-percent” plan including recommendations for partnering with the town and Porter Hospital, which could be handed to a team of consultants and engineers to fully design and build. Explains Baker, “It basically says, ‘Based on our research, here’s what we think it would cost, and the kind of technology we would recommend.’”

Byrne was impressed by the students’ initiative. “The amount of work they did was really unbelievable. They went from the basic idea of what a microgrid is to a complete conceptual plan.”

Baker, after graduating in February, is preparing to launch his next venture: Ripe, a biogas financing and development company for colleges and communities interested in taking the next step on organic waste management. The microgrid project taught him to think big. He doesn’t see any reason to stop now.