Dan Zimmerle Directs the Electrical Power Systems Laboratory with Wisdom and Passion

Energy Institute Faculty Profiles

It’s only fitting that Dan Zimmerle acts as director of the Electrical Power Systems Laboratory at the Energy Institute. With an extensive history in sustainable energy research, Zimmerle brings a seasoned perspective to his position.

He describes himself as an “accidental academic,” but Zimmerle has proven himself in the academic arena. He acts as the primary investigator for four methane-emission related studies at the Energy Institute.

Zimmerle’s lengthy background in both the private and public sectors of mechanical engineering have become an asset at the EI. Skills that Zimmerle learned in senior-level management positions at Hewlett Packard and Agilent Technologies have greatly benefited the EI’s sustainability research projects.

The skill set that he developed at these past positions has come in handy for his work at the Energy Institute, which involves finding potential projects, writing proposals, and hiring teams.

Zimmerle said that his variety of career and academic experiences are useful because they helps him stay on the same page as his team members, who themselves hold a diverse array of skills and disciplinary backgrounds.

Dan Zimmerle signing a memorandum of understanding with Sule Amadu, representative from the University of Rwanda.

Methane-Leak Detection

Zimmerle works to tackle a wide range of sustainability issues. One of his most recent projects is geared toward measuring methane leaks in natural gas facilities.

Zimmerle oversees a new methane emission test site that is currently under construction in Fort Collins. The Methane Emissions Test and Evaluation Center, which is referred to as METEC, will be used to simulate methane emissions from natural gas wells, compression stations, and other facilities that the natural gas industry uses to produce and transport methane. The site is funded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E).

Zimmerle also serves as a researcher for both a study of basin-level methane emissions and a national campaign to measure emissions from the natural gas gathering process.

Why the focus on methane emissions?

“When it escapes into the atmosphere, methane is about eighty times as potent as a greenhouse gases than CO2 on a twenty-year time horizon,” said Zimmerle. Releases of methane at well sites are often accompanied by other gases that contribute to secondary air pollutant formation and result in the clouds of brown smog that hang over cities.

“The goal of all of this research is to lower the cost of detection, to the point where you can raise the bar on monitoring,” said Zimmerle. If natural gas production facilities have access to constant monitoring capabilities, instead of relying on spot-checking to detect leaks, they would be able to find and fix methane leaks quickly. That means less methane released into the atmosphere.

The sensors sponsored by ARPA-E should lower the cost of sensing and monitoring technology by two orders of magnitude — the difference between a $100,000 instrument and a $1,000 sensor.

The potential of inexpensive sensing technology isn’t confined to the natural gas industry. Zimmerle predicts that the monitoring technology that will be tested at the METEC site could be used for a variety of other applications, such as measuring air quality in buildings.

Microgrid Electricity

Besides methane emissions, another major research focus for Zimmerle is electric power systems. His laboratory collaborates with Fort Collins utilities to model the power system of the city, and study how to integrate renewable energy sources into the grid. Another project called the Smart Village Microgrid creates small-scale, independent grids in rural areas of Rwanda, Uganda, and Ghana.

Zimmerle emphasized the importance of an interdisciplinary team for the village power grid project. “If you’re a subsistence agricultural village, and you get electricity, there’s no magic formula that says now that I can turn the lights on, I’m suddenly going to see my income grow,” said Zimmerle.

In order to achieve their goal of boosting a village’s economic well-being through access to reliable electricity, the Smart Village Microgrid team needs knowledge about the villagers and their culture. They need to educate villagers how to use electricity productively to achieve economic growth. To that end, the research team includes specialists in sustainable enterprise, agriculture, sociology, and economics.

Zimmerle hopes to bring electricity to homes like this one in rural Rwanda.

Zimmerle pointed out that, in these research projects, only about 30% of the work is technical. “The other 70% is some combination of business issues, sociological issues, behavioral changes, environmental engagement or systematic engagement of people into the system.”

Including the perspectives of multiple disciplines like sociology helps researchers with community engagement, which Zimmerle sees as crucial to make changes happen. An interdisciplinary approach also drives researchers to consider how a community will use technology, instead of focusing only on the development of the technology itself. “So, as a strategic focus, a cross-disciplinary approach is extremely important to our program, our success.”

For more information, see the MONITOR and SVM sites.