Site Specific Solar

By Kiley Jacques

Diverse organizations come together to make Yellowstone the nation’s greenest park.

Something savvy is happening on the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in Yellowstone National Park—something solar savvy. The coming together of Toyota, Indy Power Systems, Sharp USA, SolarWorld, Patriot Solar, the National Park Service, and Yellowstone Park Foundation has resulted in a first-of-its-kind energy system that repurposes used hybrid car battery packs to store solar power. The stand-alone microgrid provides reliable, sustainable, zero-emission power to the park’s ranger station and education center.

Yellowstone’s Strategic Plan for Sustainability sets forth goals for operational and infrastructure improvements that reduce impacts on the environment while enhancing visitor experiences and employee living and working conditions.

Toyota, a U.S. Green Building Council Platinum level member, was a driving force for the project. The company has enjoyed a long-standing working relationship with the National Park Service and the Yellowstone Park Foundation. For many years, Toyota has supplied hybrid vehicles to support park operations, and has shared green building expertise and financial backing for the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, which opened in 2010. Toyota viewed the Lamar Ranch project as a starting point for helping Yellowstone become the nation’s most sustainable park.

After evaluating the existing energy system, the Toyota team—with David Absher, senior manager of Toyota Motor North America Environmental Sustainability, as the lead—started designing a site-specific system using solar energy and battery storage. “It was a good opportunity for us to get in there and lend our experience in that regard,” says Absher, adding “it was also a good chance to see what we could do to help them with the power generation for the site.” They have since succeeded in building the sole power source for the entire campus, which is 11 miles from the grid and consists of 14 buildings that accommodate up to 40 people at any given time.

Of the partnership among the different organizations responsible for the new system, Absher begins by crediting Georgia Tech with providing a lot of the “load data,” which helped inform the design—students had been on site, accumulating data for two years by the time Toyota got involved. When a systems integrator was needed, they turned to Indy Power Systems, as they had experience using recovered batteries.

At the Lamar Buffalo Ranch field campus in Yellowstone National Park, solar panels generate renewable electricity stored within 208 used Toyota Camry Hybrid battery packs.

“They did not yet have a microgrid application,” he recalls, “but they were confident that they could develop one that would control energy generation, distribution, and storage.” New components were also designed and built by Indy Power specifically for this application, including an onboard battery management system for each battery pack. The solar panels came from Sharp USA, with whom Absher had a professional connection; Michigan’s Patriot Solar donated the racking system; and staff from SolarWorld took vacation days to help install the system.

“It took a number of people and tremendous interest to pull this off,” notes Absher. “There was a lot of goodwill, a lot of people donating their time, and a lot of companies donating products in-kind,” he says, noting the educational value of sharing best practices among industry experts.

Reused Toyota Camry Hybrid battery packs store energy generated by solar panels in an innovative distributed energy system now online at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch field campus in Yellowstone National Park. Photos courtesy Toyota

Among the many minds at the table was Dennis McIntosh, director of sustainability and facilities for Yellowstone Forever—a single nonprofit entity formed by the recent merging of the Yellowstone Park Foundation, whose role was fundraising for park initiatives, and the Yellowstone Association, with its education mission. Another was Kevin Butt, regional environmental sustainability director, who sits on the board of Yellowstone Forever and worked with the board and the park services to understand the energy needs and limitations at Lamar Buffalo Ranch.

Yellowstone Forever shares the campus with Yellowstone Park Service. The former operates for nine months of the year, while the latter uses it twice a year for six weeks at a time to run youth programs. They share the operational expenses and maintenance requirements, so both agencies were very invested in this project. “We are in and out of there every day, explains McIntosh, “so when Kevin came up with the idea to replace the energy system . . . there was equal interest and mutual understanding . . . we knew that everything was outdated. Using old tired Toyota vehicle batteries as the storage for power has a great educational story to it, in addition to its function.” As the facilities director, McIntosh says his initial love of the project was for the function of it. As a sustainability advocate, he adds: “It’s a great thing, but the story that can be told to anybody who comes through is just as great.”

McIntosh also serves on the Yellowstone Environmental Coordinating Committee (YECC). Yellowstone Forever has a seat on that board, as does the National Park Service and all of the partners inside of the park including Zantarra, the primary concessionaire in the park; Delaware North, the medical provider; and the gas purveyor. “Everybody has an entity that is sitting on the Coordinating Committee for sustainability—that overlaps with Lamar, as well as many other sustainable initiatives inside the park,” explains McIntosh.

Toyota’s David Absher (left) and Indy Power Systems’ Steve Tolen discuss an innovative distributed energy system now online at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch field campus in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy Toyota

Toyota’s David Absher (left) and Indy Power Systems’ Steve Tolen discuss an innovative distributed energy system now online at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch field campus in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy Toyota

Montana State University has led design and implementation efforts for the system’s electronic communications—a project that has helped to grow the relationship between Yellowstone National Park, Yellowstone Forever, and the university. “It’s a great relationship,” notes McIntosh. “We are about education and sustainability. With the school just 70 miles away, that brought another great partner into the mix. The college kids love this stuff. And we’re right next door to them.”

He describes the new energy system as an ongoing science project, noting that the “nuts and bolts of the connecting pieces” are what is innovative about it. “The batteries, solar panels, and racking system are not innovative—they have been around a while. What’s cutting edge is how Indy Power and Toyota are tying it all together through the electronics. That’s something the university has looked at and taken a great interest in. They have been an excellent addition to the partnership. [They bring] engineers that are very helpful for me as the facilities director, as well as an educational punch.”

If there hadn’t been the need at Lamar, Toyota and Indy Power may have chosen to pilot the system in another location, where they could bench test it for a few years. Information that goes back and forth from Lamar to Toyota and Indy Power is a bit spotty, as it relies on satellite communication. The information that they want in real time is therefore hindered. “That has just created another challenge,” says McIntosh. “It’s not impossible, but it has made it one step harder to get them the information that they want in terms of the health of the components.” They are working around that by “dumbing down” the system, which was originally designed to communicate data and input on a second-by-second basis to hit all points in the battery packs. They couldn’t get the information out fast enough given their remote location, so they modified communications to be site appropriate. “No longer is it like a Formula One race car,” laughs McIntosh. “It’s more like a sturdy pickup truck, and that’s probably what we need.”

All who are involved seem to share the same sentiment: The system itself is a phenomenally effective and leading-edge innovation. However, the ways in which such a diverse pool of players brought their expertise to the project is equally impressive. “This project has been able to connect some unlikely partners as part of the sustainability initiative,” says McIntosh. “They are not necessarily part of the energy system but rather are part of the whole energy conservation measure.” He cites Anderson Windows, which donated windows for all of the cabins, as an example. “I call that part of the same project; it’s not wires and racks, but it’s part of the story.”

“There was quite a bit of information and quite a lot of interest for us to support,” Absher says, noting the holistic approach taken to apply energy conservation measures on all fronts.

For McIntosh, the most rewarding aspect of this partnership project was “the brain trust.” “The system is cool, the windows are awesome—all those tangible things are great. But what is intangible and hard to quantify are the people who are lending human resources that we would never have access to otherwise. These people are just so solid in their sphere of influence and sustainability.”