White Mountain Energy Project:
Bringing 21st Century Energy Technology to the Barcroft Field Station

A proposal to the National Science Foundation Field Stations and Marine Laboratories Improvement Program (FSML)

Submitted by
Frank Powell, Director, White Mountain Research Station
John Smiley, Associate Director, White Mountain Research Station

Note: WMRS was awarded $255,000 to implement the project in this proposal.

Selected sections from the proposal:

Project Summary

Intellectual Merit. White Mountain Research Station (WMRS) is absolutely unique in the continental United States in providing environmental scientists with a 3,000 m (>10,000 foot) vertical transect of laboratories separated by less than 20km. The laboratories are connected by the internet and a network of roads that provide easy access within a couple of hours. Researchers from over 100 institutions have generated over 600 publications based on work in environmental science at WMRS, especially emphasizing high altitude, over the past decade.
Although our low altitude laboratories could be relocated if necessary, the high altitude laboratories could never be replaced with modern development costs and government regulations. After recent telecommunications upgrades using FSML funding in 2000, the remaining critical need for continuing operation of the high altitude laboratories is a reliable and economical power supply. This is needed for backup and safety during winter conditions, and must be designed to replace the buried power line, which may permanently fail and cannot be replaced. We propose a combination of traditional and renewable power supplies, applied in an innovative distributed generation system with modern controls and energy conservation measures. The project is being planned in collaboration with the Advanced Power and Energy Program at the University of California, Irvine and utilizes funding from different sources in 3 separate stages.
Broader Impact. The demand for research and educational uses of WMRS as a biological field station has increased dramatically since it was established as a rustic high altitude physiology laboratory in 1950. Over 150 individual researchers and students, 50% coming from outside the University of California, use WMRS for 6,000 to 9,000 “user nights” in a typical year. In 2004, these scientists were awarded $1.8M in federal and state contracts for research critically dependent on WMRS. This research portfolio includes not only biological sciences, but also atmospheric, earth, physical and space sciences, which enrich each other. The proposed improvements will permit WMRS to maintain, operate and modernize shared research and education infrastructure to stimulate and support the development and dissemination of next-generation instrumentation, multi-user facilities, and other shared research and education platforms. History has shown that this approach leads to new paradigms at the interface between traditional disciplines. WMRS also hosts research from industrial partners, which promotes the transfer of technology between academia and the private sector. The remote location of WMRS integrates the discovery and teaching missions by mixing research mentors with students in an intimate setting. Also, the WMRS training programs promote integration of under-represented minorities in field research (e.g. new partnership with University of Puerto Rico). Finally, WMRS and UCSD-TV produced a documentary with NSF support last year to increase public understanding of the value of field research. This program is being distributed nationally via satellite TV and DVDs.

Project Description (only selected parts of the project descrption are included here)

This is a new proposal to provide reliable, economic and environmentally friendly power for the high altitude laboratories at the University of California’s White Mountain Research Station (WMRS). WMRS is absolutely unique in the continental United States in providing environmental scientists with a 3,000 m (>10,000 ft) vertical transect of laboratories. Although the low altitude laboratories could be relocated if necessary, the high altitude laboratories could never be replaced, so it is critical to maintain their basic infrastructure. With long-term land use agreements renewed and recent communications upgrades (from FSML funding in 2000), the remaining critical need for continued operation of the WMRS high altitude laboratories is a reliable energy supply. We propose a combination of traditional and renewable power supplies, applied in a distributed generation system with modern controls and energy conservation measures to reduce demand. This distributed generation system will enable the Barcroft facilities to go off the grid at any time. This is important, as the buried power line has developed problems and is at the end of its rated lifetime. The project is being planned in collaboration with the Advanced Power and Energy Program at the University of California, Irvine and utilizes funding from different sources in 3 stages.

Overview of Infrastructure Improvements needed at Barcroft Station.

We refer to the WMRS laboratories near Mt Barcroft as “Barcroft Station” or simply “Barcroft”. Barcroft Station is the principal site for high elevation research in the White Mountains and surrounding regions. Established in 1951, the Pace Laboratory at Barcroft is the focal point of this research. It has a long history of supporting physiology, developmental and behavioral biology, atmospheric studies, technology development, astronomy, and other disciplines requiring a high mountain base. Currently, there are several research groups using Barcroft, and still others have applied for funding and have plans to work at Barcroft in the next few years. Supplemental Document 2 summarizes these groups some of their specialized needs. Some common themes are evident from the list in Supplement 2:

Between November 2003 and May 2004, WMRS conducted a trial year of year-round operations at Barcroft. This effort required a large investment of resources for the station, including purchase of a new snowcat for transportation and funding for four staff positions. While the research mission was fully successful, we became aware of changes necessary for year-round operations to be repeated on a continuing basis. Current weaknesses include:

WMRS is committed to correcting these problems, and is currently planning to host winter operations in the winter of 2006-07. Before then, we will correct the water supply issues using our maintenance budget and development funds, and we are seeking external support to replace the snowcat (cost: approx. $180,000) However, upgrading the energy supply is more complex and expensive, requiring outside help with analysis and planning.

Barcroft Energy Infrastructure

In the early years, Barcroft used propane for cooking, radio for communications, and electric generators for everything else. In 1957, an above-ground pole line was installed to bring commercial electric power up to Barcroft. This line tied into the existing Southern California Edison pole line which runs across the southern end of the White Mountains, and went up to Crooked Creek, Barcroft, and up on the Barcroft Plateau. This installation provided power to the station for a time, but in the following winters icing brought down the lines at the upper elevations. After that time Barcroft ran on diesel generator power for electricity and heating, until the mid 1980’s, when a pair of direct-buried underground cables were installed between Crooked Creek and the Barcroft stations. These tied in to the above-ground line which remained in service to Crooked Creek. This buried line is still in service, and provides electricity for all electric power needs at Barcroft. A 50-year-old 40 KW diesel generator was retained in the Pace Lab for backup, but the existing wiring cannot carry its current to the outbuildings or the Barcroft observatory dome.

In 2002 a lightning strike surged through the buried power line. This event (and the subsequent repairs) highlighted the fragile nature of the current system. The direct-buried cables are aging and some of the splices are in substandard condition now. The cost of complete replacement would be extremely high, exceeding $7M. In addition, the existing system has limitations which inhibit our ability to conduct research at Barcroft. Voltage spikes result in damage to sensitive electrical equipment, and short to long-term outages cause difficulty with automated monitoring equipment. While these problems can be partially corrected by power filtering, uninterrupted power supplies and use of backup generators, the more fundamental issues of safety and reliability remain. For safe winter operations, the station must have built-in redundancy so that if one system fails a backup system can be brought into operation smoothly and reliably. Under the harsh and remote winter conditions which prevail at Barcroft, at least two backup systems are needed to provide the required margin of safety. In addition, the backups should be designed to operate for long periods. An early-season failure of the power line could be irreparable until the following summer, depending on the type and location of the damage, the station could be off the power grid for as long as 7-8 months. Finally, we must plan for the buried cables to go out of service permanently as some point in the future, as they have already exceeded their rated lifetime of twenty years.

White Mountain Energy Project

In 2002 the station began investigating energy alternatives by hosting an alternative energy conference (the WMRS “Hydrogen Retreat”), which was extremely well-attended and brought attention to the station’s potential role as a leader in developing alternative energy strategies. In 2003 WMRS began developing a strategy for energy infrastructure improvement. Informal energy audits and winter staff interviews were conducted and documents prepared which outlined the problem and suggested some solutions. Then, in 2004, with a grant from UC Office of Research, WMRS partnered with the Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) at UC Irvine. Under the direction of Prof. Scott Samuelsen, engineering students were assigned to analyze and assess the Barcroft power situation and come up with a working design which would successfully overcome the current limitations. This project was named the White Mountain Energy Project (WMEP). Later in the summer of 2004 this group installed monitoring equipment and a demonstration solar photovoltaic system to quantify and characterize the actual loads, needs, and potential for solar, wind and other forms of power generation. Using this data, the APEP group has prepared analytical and planning documents, and has modeled outcomes depending on the kinds of equipment to be installed. They are still directly involved in the planning and preparation of the energy project and this proposal. Two key planning documents for WMEP produced by the UCI group are attached (Supplemental Document 3 and Supplemental Document 4).

There are several key findings of the WMEP quantitative analyses and modeling efforts:

Reliability and efficiency increase as each component is added – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The keys to this effect are the ability to store hot water, the battery system, and the programmable control system. When connected to the commercial power grid, the ability to reverse-meter power also results in cost savings.

These recommendations are illustrated in a schematic diagram in Supplemental Document 3 (page 5). The WMEP combines proven technologies in an integrated whole which is quite innovative at the scale and constraints which apply at Barcroft. Implementing these systems will have the following effects on energy infrastructure and operations at Barcroft Station:

Scientific impacts of WMEP will include:

The proposed improvements are relatively inexpensive when compared with the benefits which will accrue to Barcroft operations. By combining in-house expertise (we have a professional electrician and several semi-skilled workers on staff) with APEP and private contractors, we will be able to keep installation costs to a minimum while keeping a high standard of quality.

WMEP Timeline and funding

Because of the remote location and short working season at Barcroft, this project will take at least three summers to complete. Stage 1 includes more planning and site preparation in summer 2005. Stage 1 can be completed within the current WMRS routine maintenance budget In summer 2006 (Stage 2, first year) we will install key components of the power system: the station wiring, the augmented propane capacity, the microturbine generators, and the hydronic heating system. This will enable us to operate and test these components of the system during winter 2006-07. Then, in summer 2007 (Stage 2, second year), we will install the solar photovoltaic system. Stage 2 is completely dependent on funding by the NSF FSML program, and is the subject of this proposal. Stage 3 will be completed if funds can be obtained from other agencies to purchase and install additional solar and wind energy generating equipment, and additional monitoring and controls. In August 2005 we will submit applications to the California Energy Commission for Stage 3 funding. In 2006, as the project begins to take shape, we also plan to apply to the Department of Defense for funds to set up a sophisticated monitoring and control system. This system will facilitate installation and testing of energy generating technologies as they are being evaluated by the military and by DOE. If these funds are awarded, then Stage 3 will be implemented by 2007.

Budget Justification (equipment justification shown here)