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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

Science Spotlight: Microgrid Course

J-term is generally recognized as a time for intensive academic exploration of typically non-traditional subjects, and the unique format of the four-week semester allows for a variety of options not present during a full semester. This year, Isaac Baker ’14.5 is spending his last J-term leading a student-taught course, ‘Microgrid Feasibility Study,’ with a small group of 13 students.

A microgrid is a smaller, more localized version of the larger power grid that brings distributed energy resources like wind, solar and natural gas closer to where energy is being used. In this case, the larger power grid in the area is operated by Green Mountain Power (GMP), which currently supplies approximately 80 percent of the College’s electrical demand.

The creation of a microgrid would allow the College’s electrical system to better withstand extreme climate events because the microgrid can operate as an island, called ‘islanding,’ allowing the community to operate independently without the larger grid in emergency situations. Energy for this kind of scenario could be generated by the biomass plant, which accounts for the other 20 percent of the College’s electrical needs, and a large part of the course is based on research of other sustainable energy methods to meet needs in the case of a major disaster like an ice storm.

Since microgrids encourage efficiency – production and transportation of energy from hundreds miles away allows for 30 percent of energy burned to reach the College, while microgrids would allow a 70 to 80 percent return – they create financial incentive to build solar panels or invest in other areas of renewable resources. The utility company provides a more marginal service in with this infrastructure.

The idea, which is steeped in academic grounding, first struck Baker while attending the Middlebury College School of the Environment in the summer of 2014, and it developed during a follow-up independent study this fall as he simultaneously crafted an application to teach the J-term course.

“I came out of the summer really jazzed about this idea and the resilience of the college energy system,” Baker said. “I know that there was a student-led course last winter, ‘A People’s History of Middlebury,’ but this was the only other student-led course I had ever heard of at the College. I was really inspired by this kind of alternative, activist-y history that people were really into. So I thought, let’s take that and do something else with it.”

The process of submitting an application is relatively simple, with interested students treated much like visiting professors with the exception of a twelve-student enrollment cap and the involvement of a faculty advisor. Interested students, who are usually upperclassmen, speak with the registrar in the fall to express interest in the option. Baker tried to be realistic in his academic goals, especially knowing that his topic relied heavily on a lot of information not yet obtained.

“I spent the fall interviewing consultants and experts who have been involved in this sort of thing for years. The end goal is a conceptual design, where we spend four weeks and hopefully by the end we get to what I call the 10 percent plan.  We can’t build a micro-grid with only the information we have because there’s knowledge that we lack and a lot of work that hasn’t been done.  The goal is to reach the next step and hand it off to a consulting firm who would look at it and say ‘Let’s see how the rubber hits the road and get you to 80 percent.’”

As the idea percolated in Baker’s mind, he was concurrently reading about the history of carbon neutrality on campus through the efforts of many of the founders of, a group committed to cutting carbon and CO2 emissions founded by Bill McKibben and students in 2007. This group created a ‘Midd Shift Report,’ which went to the Board of Trustees and led to the adoption of carbon-neutrality goals completely driven as a result of student efforts. In his desire to envision the future of carbon neutrality once it has been achieved, Baker eagerly took the opportunity to teach a course less about grades and more about ideas.

Instead of opting for a more traditional lecture-discussion format like that used in last year’s student-led course, Baker wanted to draw on his experience with horizontal leadership and project-oriented campaign planning with Sunday Night Group (SNG), creating a forum where all participants were viewed as equals.

“The actual amount of me just writing information on the board is a very small percentage of class,” Baker said. “Most of it is facilitating discussion or calling on and helping other people share research they’ve done with the rest of the group. Really they’re the ones doing the work, they’re the ones creating this.”

Zach Berzolla ’18 decided to take the course because he wanted to explore innovative, alternative energy options for the College.

“We’ve been looking at some of the stuff going on at other campuses, and most schools are doing it because it makes pure financial sense,” Berzolla said. “We’re hoping to approach it with a little bit more of an environmental twist. If we go ahead and find some sort of renewable resource, ours will, to my knowledge, be pretty unprecedented, because very few are set up where the entire microgrid is renewable. Most have mixes and are based on fossil fuels.”

Baker has been pleasantly surprised by the initiative taken by the students. About half of the students in the course worked with Baker independently in the fall in the national  *SparkCleanEnergy innovation competition to design a grid resilience API, winning third place, a $1,000 prize and a trip for two students to the ARPA-E Innovation Summit in Washington D.C. Through this team-based project on grid resilience, these students became more energized and confident about furthering their research on the topic.

“They are pulling from many disciplines and previous experiences. For example, some students have brought in some research on distributive generation that I hadn’t even thought of,” he said.

Berzolla explained that the class dynamic in the course extends beyond the usual class meetings.

“Our class ends at 4 but we always stay longer,” Berzolla said. “Conversations always continue. Class ends but things don’t really end.”

Though Baker has spent the better part of half a year carefully planning the course, he has adapted to unplanned challenges as they arise. Baker had assumed that implementing community guidelines would be an easy, intuitive process, but navigating group dynamics is always tricky, and Baker has adapted the curriculum to facilitate a comfortable environment for all class members.

“It’s so easy to just drift through a class and not really see the people you’re there with,” Baker said. “Forming an academic and intellectual community is really hard to do, so I think on a broad level what I’m most happy about is that people are really connecting. We’re spending time with each other inside of and outside of class in these formal and informal settings that are allowing people to get to know each other really well. It’s really special knowing that after I’ve graduated I’ll have people I have shared a really important part of my college experience with.”

Instead of instilling passion in students for only four or twelve weeks, the unique design of Baker’s course is inspiring long-term involvement among younger participants.

Berzolla is passionate about the opportunity to stay with this project throughout his time at the College.

“For me, and I think a lot of the other freshman, this will be our baby going forward,” he said. “This is something we worked on and proposed and it’s something we want to see get done.”

“I think it’s something we will all be passionate about. It will take time, but my hope is that we will see it happen while we’re here,” Berzolla said.

During the final week of the course, on Wednesday, Jan. 28, students in the course will present their original research on college infrastructure, information on the 10 percent conceptual plan, how other students can get involved and how the project will manifest in the future. Taking place at 4 p.m. in the Orchard Room of Hillcrest, the final presentation will be open to the community, with snacks provided by the Campus Sustainability Coordinators (CSCs).

In the coming weeks, Baker will be meeting with a variety of professors to discuss how smaller pieces of the puzzle he has been exploring can be integrated in the curriculum of other classes in the spring. His next meeting is with Professor of Psychology Michelle McCauley to discuss her spring 2015 Environmental Psychology course.

Luke Linden contributed reporting.