National park solar microgrid proposed

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The National Park Service has proposed a solar-powered microgrid to replace a power line in a remote area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  If developed, the Mt. Sterling Sustainable Energy Project could serve as an example of microgrids as cost-effective alternatives to transmission or distribution lines.

Solar panels on a campground facility inside Arches National Park, Utah.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a rugged area of North Carolina and Tennessee.  Today, NPS radio equipment located at the Mt. Sterling Fire Lookout Tower is powered by a 3.5-mile overhead line.  According to the NPS, "Maintaining the line is challenging and expensive based on its remote location and steep terrain."

As an alternative, Duke Energy has proposed installing a microgrid to power the radio equipment at the old fire tower: 30 solar panels tied to a zinc-air battery.  This solar microgrid would then operate separately from the interstate electricity grid, and according to NPS "would allow greater reliability while using a renewable energy source."  While its estimates suggest 10 trees would need to be cleared for site development and to prevent shading, NPS notes that "the microgrid would allow the existing overhead line to be decommissioned and the existing maintained corridor would return to a natural state."

The Mt. Sterling Sustainable Energy Project is subject to approval by the National Park Service as well as the North Carolina Utilities Commission.  If approved, implementation could occur in spring 2017.

More broadly, microgrids may be suitable alternatives to traditional transmission and distribution infrastructure.  Remote locations such as the Mt. Sterling radio site, where the cost of traditional grid power is either high or prohibitive, could be especially attractive candidates for microgrid development.  Infrastructure development in national parks can be controversial, even if the infrastructure in question is "green" or less intrusive than alternatives -- but microgrids may be particularly appealing if they can offer improved performance with reduced cost and environmental impacts.

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