Monitoring Energy Demand, Moving Toward Energy Independence

Creating new parks saves critical pieces of wilderness, but operating parks takes energy, which may leave an ecological footprint of its own.  Recognizing this, Conservacion Patagonica aims to make Patagonia National Park the first energy-independent park in the world: from houses to vehicles, the future park should not require the input of (climate-change-causing, polluting-to-extract) fossil fuels.  To reach this goal, we’ve had to put together outside-the-box solutions that bring together a network of energy-saving projects.

Some of these projects are well underway.  We designed all buildings to require minimal electricity, heating and upkeep, through using energy-efficient lighting (often LED) and appliances, advanced insulation and durable construction.  A team of stone masons quarries the building material right in the valley.    Solar panels and solar collectors generate day-time energy throughout the year, while a micro-hydro station produces power all months but three.

Solar panels form just one element of our renewable energy system

Micro-hydro stations like this one generate energy without the deleterious environmental impacts of mega-dams

Part of the long-term agenda for the park is to is harness wind power during the windy summer months, store it through a hydrogen system, and use it to power the buildings and vehicles. On his recent trip to Chile, renewable energy expert Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, spent a week at the future park to consult on the planning of this new infrastructure.

A challenge in drawing up the park’s energy plan is predicting energy demand. Since the facilities are so new, there is little preexisting data about the park’s energy usage. But as we near the home stretch of the park’s creation, with a record number of visitors, volunteers, and interns set to arrive this season, along with the completion of several new buildings, we are now in a position to start tracking our energy consumption. This way, we can begin to make accurate projections and set tangible goals in keeping with our original commitment to efficiency and self-sustainability.

Corinne tests the new energy monitor

To this end, we’ve developed a new demand monitoring system with the help and expertise of two incredible volunteers: Sam Mason, a mechanical engineer with Building Services Engineers and Environmental Design Consultants Atelier Ten in London, and Corinne Benedek, a mechanical engineer with Arup in New York. Last week, Sam and Corinne completed the installation of a new system of state-of-the-art electricity meters.  Sam reports the idea for this project came five years ago, when he read about Conservacion Patagonica and the goal of making the world’s first energy-independent national park.

Planning out the energy system: Francisco and Juan Carlos (our design/ energy team), Sam, and intern Jordan Bowlby

He describes the utility and aim of this system:

These meters collect energy consumption and power demand data every 15 minutes. This data is analysed to help understand the peak electric demand and annual energy consumption and will allow two key developments.

First, the data will show the hourly variations in energy consumption from which an energy management plan can be developed. This plan will inform park staff of the energy usage patterns and create a framework for how and when energy can be consumed. In effect, the staff (and visitors) will enable a demand response program to smooth out energy consumption in the park and make the electricity grid more stable.

Secondly, the data will show energy consumption over the course of a year for the park and will be the first step to inform the size of the proposed wind turbines and hydrogen storage system. In order for this second step to be fully realized, however, meters will need to be installed on all buildings in the park and it is our intention to have the remaining meters installed by the end of 2012.

We’re poring over the information generated already: it’s bizarrely fascinating to learn how much electricity your washing machine uses and to watch the ebb and flow of daily use.  Real-time data allows park employees and visitors to see the link between their personal habits and the energy needs of the park.

We’ll start figuring out when demand is the lowest, so we can concentrate high-energy projects in those moments, evening out usage.  With only a few households at the park headquarters, our system of demand management can be more communal than those of large electrical grids.

As we develop this project, we’ll explore how to share these lessons about energy use, efficiency, and renewable sources with park visitors.  We hope that people will leave Patagonia National Park not only with a new appreciation for wild places, but (just as importantly) with clear steps in mind of what they can do back home to limit their impact on our remaining wilderness.

Many thanks to Sam and Corrine for dedicating their time and creativity to our project and helping us take a giant leap towards our big goal. We look forward to continuing this partnership! Meanwhile, we still need more funding to finish this ambitious energy program; if you think an energy-independent park sounds interesting, please consider supporting us!

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Filed under Ecosystem Restoration, Renewable Energy

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