Copper Country native, now in Sweden, helping address U.P. energy needs

Photo provided by Nelson Sommerfeldt Nelson Sommerfeldt, a Copper Country native who is now post-doctoral researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, is working with Michigan Technological University on a research project on finding cost-effective ways to expand renewable energy in the Keweenaw.

COPPER HARBOR — A Copper Country native now working in Sweden is working with Michigan Technological University on research that could eventually lead to lower energy prices here. 

Through a visiting research position at Tech, Nelson Sommerfeldt is studying ways to get lower-cost renewable energy solutions to people in the Keweenaw. 

That can be at the building level, with solar panels and photovoltaics, said Sommerfeldt, a post-doctoral researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. They’re also interested in looking at larger system solutions at the community level. 

A test project at a new campground in Copper Harbor had promising results, Sommerfelt said. After looking at the campground’s energy supply options, the researchers’ conclusion was that the lowest-cost energy for the site would come through electric heat pumps and solar photovoltaic cells. 

“Not only was that the cheapest option, but it was 60% renewable energy as well,” he said. “They were excited about that, because it fits well with their outdoorsy ethos.”

Sommerfeldt is working with Tech professor Joshua Pearce. With the help of two masters students, they will do large system modeling for the Keweenaw, where they look at ways to stem the increases in utility costs. 

Their main focus will be solar and biomass, with natural gas, heat pumps, batteries and pumped hydrostorage also included. 

“It’s not just about electricity, but energy all together,” he said. 

For instance, they will look at whether there is a cost benefit to moving from individual furnaces and boilers to a community-wide system. 

“If the power goes out, then that system can be running on its own microgrid,” Sommerfeldt said. 

They hope to make a detailed model of energy use in one community, possibly Copper Harbor, seeing how people heat their homes and how much electricity they use. 

Their models will then test out thousands of system combinations to find the lowest-cost system. 

So far, it doesn’t look like the novel coronavirus will have much effect on their work, Sommerfeldt said.  

“Given the nature of our work, as long as we have a desk and a computer, we can more or less pull it off,” he said. 

Final results are expected by autumn, Sommerfeldt said. Depending on the results, it could be useful information for green energy installers in the area, as well as heating suppliers. 

The team is also looking at policy changes that may be needed to put some recommendations into action. The state’s U.P. Energy Task Force, which is looking at the region’s energy needs and alternate ways to serve them, is scheduled to put out its final report next year. This week, the task force posted a draft of its section on how propane supply to the U.P. could be impacted under various scenarios. 

“Part of our motivation is to be a bit more resilient and not rely on gas and supplies from outside the area, and take advantage of the resources that are already here,” Sommerfeldt said. 

The collaboration is something of a homecoming for Sommerfeldt, who grew up in the area and graduated from Michigan Tech with an engineering degree. 

Interested in working on solutions to climate change, he began looking for jobs in wind energy in 2008. He found a graduate program in Sweden. 

After receiving his master’s degree, he returned to the U.S. and got a job at Thermoanalytics. But his professor in Sweden called him and convinced him to get his Ph.D. 

And so a planned two years in Sweden became 10. But Sommerfeldt remained interested in finding ways to help the Keweenaw with its energy issues. 

The project in the Keweenaw is a great way to help people who are interested in renewable energy, but don’t have a way to do in-depth analysis themselves, Sommerfeldt said. 

“We try to do practical research that can give people the information they need to make decisions … because the energy is so expensive in the Keweenaw, and there are so many resources, it’s the perfect place to kick off this transition, maybe more so than in other places,” he said. 


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