Silhouette of a Wellington, Kansas, water tower against an orange sky.

Kansas project tests new materials and saves energy under one roof

Municipal, university, and private industry partners are collaborating on a federally funded pilot project to test energy-efficient materials in municipal buildings in Wellington, Kansas. A main goal is to see if the methods could reduce rolling blackouts caused by extreme weather, as occurred throughout Kansas this winter.

The project will test passive thermal energy storage technologies that use phase change materials, substances that release or absorb significant energy when they change states (e.g. solid and liquid) and provide useful heating and cooling.

In January, the U.S. Department of Energy selected this project and six others to receive a collective $6 million to test building energy efficiency technologies. DOE says the real-world field tests and funding should help to de-risk and drive innovation. The public and private partners on the Kansas project include Sumner County, Wellington Municipal Utility, the University of Kansas, Decent Energy, PlaNet Productions, and Insolcorp

The innovation 

The phase change materials will be incorporated into quarter-inch-thick roof and ceiling tiles developed by Insolcorp. They will be installed at six municipal buildings throughout Wellington. The partners hope to achieve a 20% or greater reduction in space heating, cooling, and electricity demand.

Traditional insulation blocks the effects of extreme temperatures. But phase change materials switch between solid and liquid states to store heat, then they slowly release it. The process makes it easier to keep buildings warm in winter and cool in summer without as much space heater or air conditioner use.

“If you want to achieve the same results with existing insulation, which is usually fiberglass or cellulose, you would have to double or triple the thickness of the wall. That would require space and would be extremely costly,” Mario Medina, associate professor at the University of Kansas, said in a news release.

The university will deploy sensors, establish a baseline, develop building energy models, and run simulations to evaluate the materials’ performance.

Helping the grid

On very hot or cold days, customers’ increased cooling and heating technology use can cause overwhelming electricity demand and prompt utilities to impose rolling blackouts to prevent a system collapse.

“During summers, most air conditioners peak around the hottest time of the day, which is about 2:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon,” Medina said. “At that point in time, the electrical utility companies are also providing the electricity that they normally provide for lighting, for plugs, for equipment — but on top of that, in the summer, they are providing that excess amount of electricity for these air conditioners.”

But phase change materials are expected to ease that problem by storing heat until later in the day when it is cooler and electrical grid demand is lower. In addition to boosting grid resiliency and preventing blackouts, customers could experience lower electric bills.

The project “further illustrates that rural communities have a voice and play an important role in the growing clean energy economy,” Stacy Davis, executive director of the Sumner County Economic Development Commission, said in a news release.

The DOE funding for this project runs for three years.

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