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Chicago Aquarium Enters Electric Energy Biz

The Shedd Aquarium is adding a battery to its rooftop solar and other electric initiatives as it seizes control of its energy destiny, pointing the way for others.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Shedd Aquarium is at the forefront of newly empowered electric customers poised to benefit from the energy revolutions sweeping America. Shedd facilities director Bob Wengel will talk about his institution’s drive to become the most sustainable cultural institution at the Empowering Customers & Cities executive energy conference, Chicago, November 7-8.

Inside the Shedd Aquarium, perched on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore, 32,000 coral polyps, otters, penguins and other creatures do their thing.

Meanwhile, out back, the largest building battery in Illinois is ready to perform a number of unusual – non-aquatic – tasks that traditionally have been the province of the local electric utility.

The $2 million, 1-megawatt lithium ion battery on the Shedd’s loading dock joins 913 solar panels resting on top of the facility’s oceanarium, all part of the institution’s ambitious bid to become the most sustainable cultural institution in America, if not the world.

The installation was funded in part by grants from the state of Illinois and installed by Schneider Electric.

While sustainability is the focus, the facility aims to make some money in the process, Bob Wengel, Shedd vice president of facilities, told the Energy Times.

Shedd Aquarium

Bob Wengel

Specifically, the battery will be used most of the time to help stabilize Chicago’s electric grid through what is known as “frequency regulation.”  Frequency regulation is typically the work of utilities and power suppliers. It is the balancing act of bringing electric generation assets on and off line as needed to keep the grid balanced at 60 hertz so that all our appliances and electrical devices can hum.

 Batteries such as the one installed at Shedd can provide these services without the carbon emisions of natural gas and coal burning power plants.Wengel said that the Shedd’s battery may well be one of just a handful nationally that is located on the customers’ side of the utility electric meter that will be used for frequency regulation.

Early estimates pegged the frequency regulation services of the Shedd battery will generate about $300,000 a year, a sum to be split among the aquarium, the battery owner and a curtailment supplier, Wengel said.

In addition, the battery can be tapped during periods of peak demand as well as for emergency back-up power in the event of an outage.

A couple of hurdles have had to be cleared up for the Shedd project.

Wengel and his team are working with Eagle Picher, Viridity Energy and  PJM, a regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electric markets, to address technical matters such as how to handle equipment shutdown.

So bottom line, why would a savvy facilities manager such as Wengel want to wade into the thicket of electricity markets and the complexities of electrical equipment?

The grid is changing and getting smarter and buildings need to be able to react and participate to have a smart grid, Wengel said.

He also sees it as integral to the teaching mission of Shedd, which opened 87 years ago. Getting energy efficient with ever-more use of LED lightbulbs, combatting climate change via solar power units and now helping utilities and other major energy customers orchestrate a vastly more complex grid –that all adds up to a story  the Shedd hopes to tell its visitors from Chicago and around the world.

“As conservationists, we look for every opportunity to educate the people of Chicago and beyond about the sustainable actions they can take at home that collectively make a big difference,” Wengel said in a press release. “As technologies advance and present themselves in your everyday home, we look forward to seeing Illinois make large leaps toward reduced carbon emissions and dependency on non-renewable energy sources.”

In our interview, Wengel told me that beyond that teaching role, he and his team want to be on the leading edge of an energy revolution that is going to push out more and more capabilities to major energy customers – including as an electricity-hungry aquarium with electric-powered pumps, filtration systems and more.

“Our plan prepares us for the energy demand needs of the future and keeps us nimble,” he said.

Ultimately, while its 32,000 critters frolic, the Wengel and his team will be pioneering a new vision of the energy capabilities of a landmark cultural institution.

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