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Keweenaw Energy Transition Lab: a new collaborative @Michigan Technological University

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

This is a black and white photo that shows a landscape following an ice storm. A road runs from foreground on the viewer's right to the horizon on the left hand side of the photo. A set of powerlines run alongside the road, supported by old-style wooden poles with glass insulators. Dozens of wires are caked with ice and sag to the ground under the weight of the frigid conditions. The image is in the public domain, courtesy of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Power lines down in winter. Public domain photo courtesy of U.S. NOAA.

We are thrilled to announce the launch of the new Keweenaw Energy Transitions Lab at Michigan Technological University. The lab is the organizational hub for our transdisciplinary team that emerged from our PUSH-UP project--Pumped Underground Storage Hydro in the Upper Peninsula. PUSH systems are very promising site-specific solutions to the challenge of electrical storage during the energy transition.

(PUSH is also abbreviated UPSH for Underground Pumped Storage Hydropower, but we really think PUSH is a better acronym!).

PUSH is a wonderful example of a wicked problem in science. It is a challenging engineering problem, a powerful social and political problem, and a difficult economic and ecological problem. PUSH is also a very site-specific problem, which means that each design is likely to be unique to it's local social, geological, economic, and ecological conditions and will require novel combinations of analyses. This type of problem-driven research drives the convergence among fields of science, engineering, and academics, as we all work together with students and ask them to become proficient in different fields. The long term result, we hope, is a transformation of research practice into a new field that moves beyond the limitations of established disciplines.

The energy transition presents one of the grand challenges facing humans in the world. Painted with a broad brush, the energy system is being pushed and pulled in many different directions: fossil fuel vs. renewables, centralized generation vs. distributed, continual vs. intermittent, and so on. At the same time, we live with a power system of extraordinary complexity, a legacy infrastructure which makes change difficult.

PUSH is one example of a range of technological systems that can ease the transition to a more sustainable and socially-just power system. The transition is an opportunity to reuse neglected "brownfield" sites and establish a community-driven design process that puts the neighbors and stakeholders that host energy infrastructure at the drafting table. Brownfields, such as abandoned mines or derelict factories, are different from "green" spaces. Yet they come with a distinct set of heritage concerns and can not be treated as blank slates devoid of human value.

If we can co-design energy facilities that are sustainable in these places, we can help transform post-mining communities.

These are the type of challenging projects KETL members pursue: Wicked Difficult, Transformative, Sustainable.

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