Towards an Energy-Independent Park: Consultation and Analysis from MIT Team

When Conservacion Patagonica set out to create a model flagship park, we aimed to develop not only energy-efficient, durable architecture but also a local, renewable energy system that would make the park an exemplar of small-scale energy independence.  Thus far, we have installed a micro-hydropower station, solar panels, and are working on installing solar collectors. In January, a group of graduate students from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) joined our team to provide technical expertise and consultation at the mid-stage of this effort.  Below is an account from Kevin Berkemeyer, the team leader, on their work to access and improve our microgrid here at the park.

One snowstorm, one ten-hour flight to Santiago, one two-hour flight to Balmaceda, and one seven-hour drive to the main lodge, I finally made it to the site of the future Patagonia National Park.

“Welcome to a park under construction!”
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

I was set for every type of weather, ready to spend every night in my tent, and excited to be in the Patagonia region of Chile, an area known for its dramatic scenery including glaciers, peaks, valleys, rivers, and lakes, and is the namesake of Patagonia, Inc., a personal favorite. I remember as a child my parents dressing me in Patagonia gear, recycling family favorites as we grew. I had always wanted to explore the region and had finally found an opportunity to do so.

More importantly, I was excited to get started on a project with Conservacion Patagonica (“CP”). CP was founded by Kris Tompkins, former CEO and a part of the founding team of the Patagonia, Inc. Together, Kris and her husband, Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face, are committed to protecting and conserving this area of South America for generations to come. Both Kris and Doug have been instrumental in the expansion of a robust national park system in the region; whenever people hear the Tompkins name, conservation comes to mind. It’s probably one of the most interesting stories in the modern conservation community.

The organization is working to rehabilitate 200,000 acres of former ranchland to create the heart of a new national park in the Patagonia region.  Their project includes building sustainable infrastructure, establishing a robust conservation plan, reintroducing and supporting threatened species, and developing trail networks.  Chile will contribute a neighboring 460,000 acres currently part of the Jeinimeni and Tamango National reserves to create the future Patagonia National Park, 650,000 acres. The MIT Public Service Center provided me with a grant to advise CP on implementing an entirely renewable-based microgrid that would allow the park to be energy independent. This park will not only be a critical conservation project in Chile but will also serve as an important model for the creation of other national parks around the world.

My project was to provide a review of the current energy infrastructure in the park, note the constraints and additional resources that could be added, demonstrate system optimization for microgrids and make recommendations and introductions to support their energy plan.

Located in a remote region of Chile, the park is completely off-grid. CP has worked to build its own grid infrastructure, a distribution network for electricity. While they are isolated, there is an abundance of resources, including wind, solar and water, to leverage to power the facilities. The total electricity load is approximately 20 kW. At the time of our visit, CP had the following capacity and energy resources installed:

Electricity (see photos below):

  • 20 kW DC hydroturbine
  • 20 kW DC solar thermal/electric collectors (parabolic trough solar thermal collectors with high-efficiency solar PV cells)
  • 40 kW DC diesel genset


  • Solar thermal collectors
  • Alcohol-based heating
  • Wood-based heating


  • Fuel: diesel fuel for trucks/work vehicles
La represa con Dago, Nadine and Jeff (Bastante bien!)

The dam with Dago, Nadine and Jeff (pretty nice!)
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

La hidroturina (Dago respondiendo mis preguntas) Foto: Kevin Berkmeyer

The hydroturbine (Dago answering my questions)
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

Los colectores FV/solares térmicos. Estos cilindros parabólicos concentran 10 veces la luz del sol para producir electricidad y calor.  Foto: Kevin Berkmeyer

The Solar thermal/PV collectors. The parabolic troughs concentrate sunlight 10x to produce both electricity and heat. 
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

Diesel Genset (pretty standard and very loud) Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

Diesel Genset (pretty standard and very loud)
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

Current System

Current System

In addition to the above, CP has developed or explored a future energy plan that includes wind electricity generation and using hydrolysis to produce hydrogen as a fuel source for a hydrogen-based fleet of vehicles. The following diagram represents the future system under operation:

Lont-term solution

Long-term solution

Prior to our arrival, CP had received various recommendations and advice on its energy systems and how they can build a system that enables their goals of energy independence and zero emissions, with one of the challenges being an objective evaluation. Our goal was to provide them with a candid, unbiased and practical assessment that will help inform decisions going forward.

After almost 20 hours of travel, we were excited to get working and we were even lucky enough to run into Kris Tompkins as we pulled into the park. Jeff and I met her before during a presentation at MIT, and it was great to see her again. She greeted us with “Welcome to a Park under construction!” and we had dinner, quickly setup our tents and crashed for the evening.

When we first arrived, we weren’t fully aware how we would help CP with their energy system during our time at the park. We had limited time and some of our primary goals were to make sure that we left an impact, that we were helpful and that we addressed CP’s most crucial outstanding questions. On our first day, we met with Nadine Lehner, Executive Director of CP and Dago Guzman, Park Administrator to talk about our project. Dago immediately asked, “What can you do to help us?” We were thrown right in and while my Spanish was a little rusty, I was able to explain my background in solar and batteries and we discussed their challenges and goals for the current energy system.

The following are the current park energy goals:

  • develop a system that is renewable, sustainable and puts CP on a path to zero emissions
  • develop a system that is reliable and practical  – that keeps the lights on and that is efficient
  • develop a system that is cost effective and optimizes the use of different resources
  • develop a system that is a model for parks and similar facilities worldwide and an additional resource for visitors to tour and understand

This was a very realistic and practical list for anyone developing their own microgrid system, but made more challenging by resource constraints and commitment to zero emissions. These issues were critical to the park operators and CP because energy is a critical piece of their overall work in developing a sustainable national park. They were also critical to residents of the nearby communities because such an energy system provided a new model for power generation that they could potentially implement.

While we would love to have helped them on each challenge and provide a comprehensive solution to the issues they have, we knew we could only do so much during our short stay with CP. So we decided to focus on the following:

1) System Mapping:

During our initial meeting with Dago, he drew the basic architecture of the current energy system (electric plus heating), with the different resources highlighted. He also shared where they would like to be long-term, with some of the options. While there were some rough system plans, we noticed there was no clear synthesis of the progression of their plan and that CP needed simple system maps to visually show the path to achieving their goals and mitigating their challenges. We therefore planned to develop three system maps: the current system, the mid-term solution and long-term solution.

2) Current system components and considerations:

With most microgrid systems, there are several different components that serve as sources of energy generation. CP was no different and we thought it would be useful to breakdown their current system components and provide detail on the capacity, operational profile, operational expense and the pros and cons of that component. This allowed us to look at each piece of the system and highlight the trade-offs of each technology to help CP as it develops its plan.  For example, while the concept of the solar thermal/PV collectors is great (combined heat and power), the design of this system to concentrate sunlight on a thermal fluid and solar PV cells requires access to consistent direct sunlight (the cloudy or diffuse light conditions experienced in Patagonia may limit its efficiency).

3) Future system components and considerations:

CP was contemplating the use of other resources onsite, such as batteries, and we wanted to provide useful context for them to make a more informed decision on technology choice. After working on a battery start-up and with different battery technologies at ARPA-E, I provided an overview of the benefits of a battery, especially to a microgrid, and detail on different technologies, primarily lead-acid, lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries. Similar to the analysis on the current system components, I went through the pros and cons of each technology and provided a range of expected price points.

Using batteries is a no-brainer for CP because it will allow them to optimize their resources and provide stable and reliable electricity. One clear use case for batteries at CP was in conjunction with their hydroturbine. With a microgrid system, there is a need to evacuate or release electricity from the microgrid when supply is greater than demand to maintain stability of the grid. In the current system, CP is evacuating power from the microgrid by using the excess electricity to heat ceramic coils, thus allowing the energy to dissipate as heat. Instead of dissipating or releasing this energy, CP could be storing it in batteries.

Aca hay una foto de las bobinas de ceramica instaladas en la parrte trasera de la casa de la hidroturbina Foto: Kevin Berkmeyer

Here are the ceramic coils installed on the back side of the hydroturbine house
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

4) System optimization overview and modeling

One of the most critical pieces to operating a microgrid efficiently is the optimization of the resources used. A smart control system enables use based on the most efficient operation profile of each resource given the energy demand. It serves a monitoring function to schedule resources to come online when needed, monitor storage and better manage the life of batteries. The overall goal of optimization is the minimization of the cost of energy (the cost per kWh generated).

Therefore, we provided CP with an overview of why system optimization is critical to their goals and then used the HOMER model (Hybrid Optimization Model for Electric Renewables), originally from the National Renewable Energy Lab in the US, to demonstrate how optimization improves the cost of energy under the following scenarios they are considering:

  • Current system: 20 kW PV, Diesel Genset, Hydro (no battery)
  • Mid-term system: 20 kW PV, Diesel Genset, Hydro, Battery
  • Maximized renewable generation solution (70% renewables): 60 kW PV, Diesel genset, Hydro, Battery
  • System without a diesel genset (requiring significant alternative generation)

5) Recommendations for next steps

We wanted to leave CP with recommendations on next steps and how to resolve some of the outstanding challenges and issues. We plan to make introductions to companies active in the space, including microgrid developers, battery companies and control system companies. We also plan to have an initial conversation with one of the microgrid developers to gain perspective on how CP can better manage the development of their microgrid. Lastly, we are helping source the tracking software that will allow the solar collectors to function. While there is a lot to do to help CP with their microgrid system, we believe they have the right approach.

Jeff y yo revisando algunos de nuestros trabajos con Nadine Foto: Kevin Berkmeyer

Jeff and I reviewing some of our work with Nadine
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

In addition to helping CP, our team learned a lot during our time at the future Patagonia National Park.  We saw clearly how optimization and control systems are the key to an efficient microgrid.  While I have worked with microgrids before, this was my first on-the-ground experience with a microgrid in a remote region, with no grid connection and with a diversity of resources. I saw first-hand how microgrids with a diversity of resources are complicated systems that require optimization. While the easy path is to install diesel generators, a familiar technology with a low upfront cost, the cost reductions in solar, batteries and power electronics can enable the displacement of diesel and a far more sustainable system from both an economic and environmental perspective. After working with the HOMER model and modeling different scenarios for the optimization of the resources available to CP, the ability to diversify resources but control and operate them in parallel is critical. Based on such modeling, optimization leads to lower operating expenses and a lifetime cost of energy by more than 50%. Batteries can enable this and increase the overall efficiency of the system but power electronics also play a critical role. While the use of several different types of technology can be complicated and quite daunting, especially to a small organization, the technology is currently available and off-the-shelf price points are getting better. There is, however, a clear need for the simplification and standardization

I strongly admire what CP is doing in the region. After being fortunate to spend time with Kris going over the energy presentation, speaking in more detail about CP’s work and listening to the head of conservation, Cristian, speak about the parks conservation efforts, I deeply admire CP’s mission as well as their ability to execute and realize their mission. The gains that CP has made and will make in the area are incredible: reviving a Huemul Deer population that is critically endangered, restoring habitats, protecting biodiversity, reversing desertification, uniting two national reserves to create a single Patagonia National Park, the list goes on. They have created a model for future parks, and I’m proud to support that work. My experience working with CP and helping them with their microgrid system further solidified my goals and passion to build and develop more sustainable sources of energy.

Our team with Kris Tompkins after our final presentation Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

Our team with Kris Tompkins after our final presentation
Photo: Kevin Berkmeyer

One thought on “Towards an Energy-Independent Park: Consultation and Analysis from MIT Team

  1. Friday January 1st, 2016 at 07:46 PM

    Normalmente no contesto a los comentarios pero este artículo me ha parecido
    muy trabajado

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