Good, Thoughtful Hosts #113: Microgrids and Resilient Energy with Alan Bronec and Nathan Bronec

In our final episode of the first season of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re focusing on the U.S. energy infrastructure. We’ll speak with engineers Alan and Nathan Bronec about the upgrades needed to bring energy grids into the future as systems age and needs grow. They’ll walk us through the types of modern power solutions available, along with a few examples.

About Our Guests

A 25-year veteran with the firm, Alan Bronec is an electrical engineer and director of Cushing Terrell’s Infrastructure team. His favorite projects involve alternative energy and mission-critical attributes, and he has deep experience designing micro-hydro and combined heat and power generation systems, photovoltaic arrays, data centers, and more.

An electrical engineer in training at Cushing Terrell, Nathan Bronec is a project manager specializing in work related to infrastructure and onsite energy generation. As a child following his dad (Alan) around the office, to interning, to being a five-year-tenured team member, Nathan has spent much of his life around Cushing Terrell.

Nathan and Alan jointly mentor their local FIRST Robotics Competition team after Alan filled the role for many years. They both live in Missoula, Montana. Learn more about the duo here.

Alan Bronec
Alan Bronec
Nathan Bronec
Nathan Bronec

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Hey everyone, it’s Sarah Steimer. And today we are closing out Season One of Good, Thoughtful Hosts with a very big topic: the U.S. energy infrastructure. As with anything that’s been around for a long time, it could use some upgrades. But not only that, it also has to contend with the new world of a changing climate, and expectations that it can also support new forms of technology. And we’re getting into all of that today as well. But luckily, there are modern and diverse solutions to the issue and we’ll discuss those and some examples. It’s a nice way to end season one, especially with two guests who have taken some road trips together to check out the nation’s energy grids. So at the very end, just imagine the two of them riding away into the sunset to close out our first season.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guests,

Nathan Bronec 01:19
Nathan Bronec with Cushing Terrell, and I’m a project manager, infrastructure projects.

Alan Bronec 01:26
Alan Bronec here, principal in charge of the infrastructure group here at Cushing Terrell and been with Cushing Terrell here, going on 25 years.

Sarah Steimer 01:38
Awesome. So today, we have a very big topic that we’re going to try to cover in our usual amount of time, we’re going to be talking about U.S. energy infrastructure. So just to begin with, let’s talk about sort of the overarching issues that the country is seeing with its infrastructure with the fact that it’s aging and also with I don’t know, this little thing called climate change. So Alan, I’m gonna start with you, what are some of the major issues that you are seeing from your end? As it comes to the infrastructure in this country? This is such a massive question. I feel like I should just apologize now.

Alan Bronec 02:13
Yeah, thanks, Sarah. Yeah, for sure. The infrastructure is in trouble. There’s a number of things that are happening, you know, the, the the extreme weather events that we’re seeing whether it’s hurricanes or winter storm events, like we saw in Texas a couple of years ago, all the way up to decarbonisation of the energy grid, we’re seeing a lot of sustainability plans that are moving away from fossil fuels. And that’s putting a heavy strain on the on the electrical grid, in addition to that, electric vehicles are coming into play. And the power needed for electric vehicles is putting a strain on on the grid. And some areas, the grids already overloaded.

Sarah Steimer 03:00
Yeah, Nathan, anything you wanted to add to that?

Nathan Bronec 03:03
Yeah, I think kind of circling back to the the weather events, you know, between deep freezes, like we saw in Texas, where our grid just was not equipped to be able to handle running in those cold temps all the way to, you know, the wind storms that we’ve been seeing on the West Coast, specifically in like California, where we’re having to do these safety outages now, in like the PGE service area, where they’re seeing large wind storms come in, during the super dry drought years, are causing lines to fail, or slapped together and spark causing forest fires, you know, it’s a huge impact on the grid right now. And a big issue moving forward.

Sarah Steimer 03:46
So not only, you know, we’re talking a little bit, of course, about the fact that, you know, we’re not prepared for what’s coming at us as far as weather events. You know, Alan, you touched on this a little bit when it came to an increase in demand for things like, you know, electric vehicles right now. Can you guys talk a little bit about what the expectations are now as we move maybe away from fossil fuels, and how this is starting to affect the grid system, how this is starting to affect what the you know, what our infrastructure can handle and manage.

Nathan Bronec 04:15
With kind of moving away from fossil fuels, demand for electricity is only going to go up in conjunction with, you know, more buildings being built every year. The demands just increasing year over year. And as we kind of move off of fossil fuels, you know, you’re gonna start moving into electric heating sources and stuff like that, which, you know, we’re both located in Montana here. And the majority of our buildings are all natural gas-based heat. So trying to convert all the homes and businesses in Montana over to electric is going to increase the demand just in Montana alone. And if you look at that, across the whole United States, that demand is going to be double probably, if not even more electrical usage that we currently have.

Alan Bronec 05:02
Yeah, and in addition to the electrifying buildings, Sarah, you mentioned electric vehicles. Electric vehicle chargers do require a lot of power, depending on the type and class of vehicle charger and other class three chargers require a tremendous amount of power and, and that’s, that’s going to cause overloads on on the grid and cause them to be less reliable.

Sarah Steimer 05:30
Alright, so we’ve done a pretty good job now outlining the problems that we’ve got: the fact that, you know, the infrastructure of the U.S. is aging, which is its own problem. And then you’ve got the onset of changing weather, and changing climate. And then you also just have the fact that demand is shifting as we’re expecting to, you know, move into different energy requirements and where it’s coming from. So let’s talk about solutions. Let’s talk about the the better part of this conversation now. So let’s, let’s get into that. And I know there’s something called DERs. So tell me what DERs are, maybe some examples, if you could, I’ll go ahead and start with you, Alan.

Alan Bronec 06:08
Well, DER is distributed energy resource. And the whole concept behind distributed energy resource is producing power at the point of consumption. So if you if you place these power production resources, say like solar PV system, battery energy storage system, so hydrogen-type generation systems, if you’ve placed them at the point of consumption, it alleviates the amount of power that needs to be brought in from the grid to account for these electric vehicle charging stations and to account for the additional electrical load created by electric heating systems in buildings.

Sarah Steimer 06:52
Well, Nathan, can you give us some examples, maybe of some DERs,

Nathan Bronec 06:55
You touched on a couple of them, you know, it can be anything from a solar system paired with batteries located at a building, all the way up into, you know, some CHP systems, you know, which are combined heat power plants that usually have a receipt or a natural gas turbine that generates electricity, and also uses that waste heat off of those engines to heat the building or go through an absorption chiller and create cold water for chilled loops. Those are probably the two most common ones currently in the U.S. for the DERs.

Sarah Steimer 07:32
Actually, I’m really interested in that waste conversion. If you guys could just explain that a little bit further for me. So so what happens there in terms of kind of keeping that loop closed? In a way?

Nathan Bronec 07:44
Yeah, so when your combustion engine or your turbine, you know, it needs cooling on those as it burns, either fuel a fuel source. And so as you are pulling that heat off that engine, cooling it down, you then inject that into a heating loop of the building. And so that can be used as kind of a pre-heat for the heating loops in the building. And then it raises the efficiency, overall efficiency of that unit. So you know, typical recip engine or turbine might be 60 to 70% efficient as a stationary power source. But when you start capturing that waste heat, you’re bringing that efficiency up to you know, 80% efficient.

Alan Bronec 08:28
Yeah, Nathan, you described the recip engine producing hot water. There’s also a gas-fired turbine, so that can produce steam by capturing the waste heat off of the turbine, a gas-fired turbines, much like a jet engine, you do burn natural gas, and capture that waste heat off of the turbine and you produce steam. And that steam can be injected right into a steam plant to say, for example, a large college campus, a lot of campuses use steam to heat their buildings. So you can place this combined heat power system adjacent to the campus heating plant, and inject that steam right into the steam plant. And then also you’re producing electricity simultaneously. And that electricity can be utilized to power up the campus.

Nathan Bronec 09:20
Yeah, I think the big thing there is, you know, some of these CHP models, you’re still using a fossil fuel, you know, you can easily convert those over to hydrogen in the future if we start to see hydrogen adoption happen, especially in like these turbines. The other important thing to remember is as it is distributed energy resource, you’re right at the point of use. And so typically, when we start thinking about these, you know, fossil fuel power plants, you’re thinking large coal plants, large natural gas plants that might be hundreds of miles away from the source of use, right. And so, through that transmission system, you have a lot of losses in there. And so not only are you increasing efficiency of these plants, because you’re capturing the heat, but you’re also reducing the losses in the lines by producing right at the point of use, which is, is increasing the overall delta of, you know, even though they’re burning a carbon source, the carbon output of these plants is going to still be drastically smaller than that if they were pulling that same power off the grid from a carbon resource.

Sarah Steimer 10:31
The thing that this is actually reminding me of, and if this is a terrible analogy, I’m going to rely on you guys to call me out for it. But the thing that this is making me think of it kind of reminds me a bit of like, sort of the shop local movement, where it’s perhaps more economically efficient, so to speak, to keep your dollars in the neighborhood or the city that you’re living in, versus maybe the dollars that are lost when you shop online from a company that’s located maybe in like another state or another country, you know, does that does that sound right? When we’re talking about like, expecting that energy to come from a grid that is located wherever it is?

Nathan Bronec 11:05
Yep, exactly. That’s, that’s actually a pretty good analogy is like, you’re you’re more efficient, and you have like, kind of a bigger impact. Why should you keep that resource local, then all of a sudden using it online, for example? So it works good.

Sarah Steimer 11:23
Every so often, you hit it, you know? So I wanted to talk a little bit about maybe some projects that you guys have worked on, if you’ve got a really good, you know, example for us in terms of how you maybe changed the way you know, I know you talked about maybe a university, things like that, but was there a building, a community, something like that, that you guys worked on that really brought the grid local, brought the energy local, and kind of changed the way that they were interacting with the energy infrastructure.

Alan Bronec 11:53
We recently completed the conceptual design on a large project in Harare, Zimbabwe, at a multi-building government campus. This particular campus was built only a few years ago, and shortly after the campus was constructed, the local goldmine scenario were expanding, causing the utility grid to be overloaded. And to solve this issue, the local utility decided to shut down power to this campus and several other sites in the area for 17 hours a day to divert the power to the nearby mines. And during the daily power outage, the campus had to operate on diesel generators, which required about 6,000 hours a year of generator run time. To reduce the the generator plant run time and the amount of diesel fuel consumed at this site, we designed 1,000 Kw parking lot canopy solar PV array and coupled it with a 2,800 kilowatt hour lithium ion battery energy storage system. And we’ve configured it to charge the batteries at night time using grid power and then releasing that power during the daytime and from the batteries to power up the campus. And in addition to the battery power, this solar PV array would supply power to the campus. This is a great example of a micro grid system. And we ended up producing the diesel generator runtime by over 5,600 hours a year, which is a significant reduction in diesel fuel and emissions at this site.

Sarah Steimer 13:51
This is, this made me think a little bit about who this makes the most sense for to start thinking about these sorts of DER solutions. And it certainly sounds like places that are a bit remote, perhaps where they maybe can’t as easily get to that main grid, that main location where the energy is being created. That certainly is important. But even maybe buildings in cities, you know, why would they maybe want to consider it? Who should be looking at these solutions, I suppose is the question.

Nathan Bronec 14:23
I think it kind of comes down to any individual or entity that needs to have reliable power. You know, if we kind of circle back to the Texas freeze, for example, where we saw, you know, large swaths of the state without power specifically, you know, if we kind of home in on our colleagues down in Austin, their, their homes were without power, they had rolling blackouts throughout the city of Austin. You see a lot of these entities there where their buildings are freezing up or you know, they aren’t able to function especially when we look at like government facilities. You know, where there’s a continuity of government concern there when they’re without power? Typically, you know, a lot of these buildings have a standby generator plant. But the analogy that Alan and I like to always throw out is that generator plants really only serving you during that outage. Whereas distributed energy resource, a solar with some batteries or a CHP plan, you’re able to utilize that resource 24/7. And so it actually shows a payback over the lifetime of it. So it’s not only making sense from a environmental standpoint, from a reliability standpoint, but it’s also an economic making sense there.

Sarah Steimer 15:40
So when any organization whether it is a government entity, whether it’s a private company, whomever, you know, if they’re starting to consider this type of a solution, where do they begin, you know, how do they sort of consider what makes the most sense in terms of which distributed energy solution that they should opt for?

Nathan Bronec 15:58
Typically, when it’s, you know, for, kind of staying on track here with the solar and batteries that can easily adapt into almost any building type, you know, because all you’re really doing is using electricity there, when it comes to like CHP and kind of more specialty distributed energy resources, you kind of have to look at what’s the existing building infrastructure look like, you know, CHP plants, in order for them to really be effective, you need a hot water loop or a steam loop, something that they use that waste heat in. And so a lot of buildings, if they aren’t set up, or they’re using hot water heating, or a steam loop or something like that, you know, it becomes a larger lead to all of a sudden do a CHP project where all of a sudden, you’re also talking mechanical upgrades and stuff like that. Whereas if it’s just solar, and a battery system, you know, that can easily plug into any building out there right now.

Alan Bronec 16:54
I’d like to add, you know, Nathan, you talked about infrastructure upgrades within a building. And really before a microgrid is developed, energy efficiency upgrades should be performed in the building to ensure that the facility is operating at its peak efficiency, because every kilowatt hour saved in an energy upgrade is, is it a kilowatt hour that doesn’t have to be included in the micro grid system?

Nathan Bronec 17:24
Yeah, that’s a good point. You know, if you save 10% on your energy, that’s 10% less of a system size you need up front. So it kind of correlates directly there.

Sarah Steimer 17:35
Yeah, lots of ways to save. So you know, those are those are really most my questions for you guys. And it’s also good to hear, I’m glad we sort of are ending it on a note to where this doesn’t have to be a situation where, you know, this is only something that new builds can consider this is something that can be adaptable for existing buildings as well. But was there anything that I didn’t ask that you guys wanted to mention? You know, I know you guys took a fairly recent road trip, you know, I wasn’t sure if there’s anything from your travels that you noticed, you know, was maybe worth worth pointing out as it relates to this conversation or anything. But, you know, anything you wanted to add, as far as energy infrastructure goes today?

Nathan Bronec 18:12
I don’t know when you have two electrical engineers stuck in a car together, the amount of detours you end up taking a look at solar farms and wind turbines and dams in the Pacific Northwest is quite, quite daunting trying to get to Seattle, so it adds a couple hours there.

Sarah Steimer 18:32
Not everything can be an energy saver or time saver, you know, it is what it is. Alan, was there anything that you wanted to add?

Alan Bronec 18:40
Now the only thing I’d like to add is, you know, there’s going to be a number of things that are going to need to take action in order to keep the grid stable and micro grids and distributed energy is one component, we also need to look at larger scale power production sources like large-scale solar farms and and other power production, you know, nucular is, is being looked at as, as an emission-free source. Of course, there’s some issues with the waste, the hazardous waste. But the advantage of some of these power sources is they produce power 24 hours a day, unlike wind and solar, where they’re only producing power when the wind blows or the sun shines and then you have to couple wind and solar with some sort of storage system like battery storage, or pumped hydro storage or some other means to store that energy and, and hydrogen is, of course, being looked at hard right now and being developed to store some of the power that’s produced by wind and solar

Nathan Bronec 19:48
To solve the grid issues and solve climate issues, I think we can’t just focus in on a single type of generation you know, it needs to, it’s ultimately the correct solution is going to be multiple different forms of generation that adds diversity to the overall profile for electricity generation in the U.S.

Sarah Steimer 20:10
Well, we’ll rely on you two to hop into an electric vehicle, and map out where all of these new energy farms can be. I believe that you guys have have the capabilities. So I know we really just scratched the surface of this conversation today. And I do hope that we can come back to it. But you know, it is exciting. And especially to see that there is such a diversity of solutions as well. You know, it’s not just like a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. But you can consider what’s going to make the most sense for your project, your building, your needs. So that’s always a good thing to hear. Well, thank you both so much for your time today. I really do appreciate it.

Alan Bronec 20:46
Thank you for having us. On a side note, I don’t have an electric vehicle but I’ve been riding an electric bike for about six years now, way before electric bikes were even a thing.

Sarah Steimer 20:59
Those are very hot right now.

Alan Bronec 21:00
Yeah, well, I converted my old 1990s mountain bike to to an electric bike and now I got solar PV on my house, so I charge my electric bike with that.

Sarah Steimer 21:12
That’s awesome. That’s great. Well, I mean, I’m gonna expect you to get on the road on your electric bike to find some new energy farms. There you go. Alright, thanks guys.

Producer 21:31
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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