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Wisconsin regulators fund disaster-resilience efforts


By Chris Hubbuch

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    MADISON, Wisconsin ( State Journal) — The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has awarded almost $1 million to study projects designed to keep electricity flowing locally even during major disasters.

Established earlier this year with federal Department of Energy funding, the grant is intended to promote pre-disaster mitigation through the use of microgrids and community resilience centers, trusted places people can go for essential services during major disruptions.

With climate change fueling increasingly frequent and powerful extreme weather events — including 22 billion-dollar storm events last year alone — it’s increasingly important to prepare for worst-case scenarios, especially in a state that relies heavily on imported fossil fuels, according to the state Office of Energy Innovation, which designed the grant program.

Pioneered by researchers at UW-Madison, microgrids can include a combination of generators and batteries and are designed to function as self-contained systems that can seamlessly disconnect from the larger power grid, functioning as islands during power outages.

The PSC voted to fund 15 pilots and feasibility studies, including five in the Madison area, from nonprofit organizations, municipalities, tribal governments and one utility.

One such project aims to develop a community resilience center on Madison’s South Side. UW-Madison, working with city, county, utility and other partners, plans to use the $92,000 grant to build solar-powered kiosks at the Village on Park development.

Using solar panels and batteries, the kiosks would allow residents to charge cellphones and other communication devices for up to 24 hours during a power outage. The university will use the kiosks to study the feasibility of larger resilience centers that could provide emergency power for cooking, refrigeration for food and medicine and even charging vehicles.

While such centers often use diesel generators for backup power, the project designers want to use the study to figure out if they can use solar panels and batteries to downsize or altogether avoid the use of noisy generators that produce air pollution.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance received $50,000 to study the use of solar panels and batteries to replace a diesel generator at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, which provides emergency shelter for the town of Westport and for travelers stranded at the Madison airport.

Madison Gas and Electric would use the project as a storage test site.

Grants were also awarded to study the use of microgrids at a new emergency operations center in Prairie du Sac, the Sun Prairie public library and a business park in Middleton.

The commission voted 2-1 to reject a proposal from the Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp. to study an emergency heating and cooling center for a low-income senior housing project in Green Bay because the application was filed five hours after the deadline.

The commission approved the grants unanimously, but Commissioner Ellen Nowak expressed concern about the strong emphasis on renewable energy and said she wants to see an emphasis on resilience in any future funding requests.

“This isn’t about putting out a press release (saying) ‘we’re on our way to meeting our city’s goal,’” Nowak said. “This is about providing critical service in a time of need.”

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