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Power dearth? Berks seeks microgrid at business park

When Berks County Industrial Development Authority officials were planning a business park on 155 acres they bought from Reading Regional Airport several years ago, they realized they faced a major problem: The Route 183 corridor lacks the electricity for the manufacturers and warehouses they wanted to attract there.

When Berks County Industrial Development Authority officials were planning a business park on 155 acres they bought from Reading Regional Airport several years ago, they realized they faced a major problem: The Route 183 corridor lacks the electricity for the manufacturers and warehouses they wanted to attract there.

“Even though it’s a great geographic location, there’s not enough power available there,” said Thomas McKeon, executive director of the BCIDA. “There are five circuits and four substations that are serving the area, and they are all at close to capacity.”

Met-Ed officials told them they could upgrade the power lines and transformer, which would yield three megawatts of power, but it would cost BCIDA $1.2 million. And the business park, which would be near the airport in Bern Township, would still need more power.

Officials tried for about a year to figure out how to add more power, “but there is not enough money to take care of the problem,” McKeon said.

McKeon was telling this story to an acquaintance who works at Penn State Berks, who suddenly stopped him and told him he should contact James Freihaut, an architectural engineering professor at Penn State’s University Park campus. Freihaut is an expert on microgrids – small, independent power networks increasingly being used by colleges, industrial parks and communities to supplement or replace energy supplied by the main power grid.

Intrigued, McKeon and his team met with Freihaut at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a large industrial redevelopment site where the professor has been working on a microgrid and a system that recycles heat and power.

As BCIDA officials talked to more experts and learned about microgrids, they became convinced this new technology might be worth pursuing. They’ve put together a consortium of business leaders in Berks County to explore the idea – including EnerSys and Ecoult, a subsidiary of East Penn Manufacturing, heavy hitters that are the nation’s largest industrial battery manufacturers.

Batteries often are used to store energy in microgrid technology. Ecoult is working on the technology to store energy from solar power.

The consortium is raising money to cover the estimated $100,000 to $150,000 for a feasibility study, McKeon said. The Met-Ed Sustainable Energy Fund has contributed $25,000, and the consortium is pursuing funding through the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, he said.

McKeon said the consortium is considering a microgrid for the proposed business park that would use solar power and generate and reuse heat and power from natural gas, as well as store energy in batteries.

Wendy Solomon

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