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Swine & U: Energy Research on the Edge of the Prairie

By Diane DeWitte, UMN Extension swine educator
Originally printed in The LAND as August 5, 2022 Swine & U column

Partnership in Renewable Energy Storage

For over twenty years, the University of Minnesota Morris and University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) have been working to advance clean energy solutions in west-central Minnesota. In 2005, UMN WCROC installed the first industrial-scale wind turbine at a public university in the United States. In 2011, UMN Morris installed a second wind turbine. During the past decade, both University of Minnesota campuses have advanced research and demonstration projects. UMN WCROC built a globally-unique wind-to-hydrogen-to-ammonia platform, turning wind and water into fertilizer. UMN Morris demonstrated biomass gasification. And, both campuses built solar PV and solar thermal projects.

For many years now, UMN Morris and UMN WCROC, have explored the potential of energy storage in rural Minnesota.

In May, 2022, partners UMN Morris and UMN WCROC launched the Center for Renewable Energy Storage Technology, or CREST.

Efficient and economic energy storage systems are critically needed to reach high levels of renewable power generation. This field is poised for significant growth and attention in the coming years. The new UMN intercollegiate Center provides leadership in research, demonstration, education, and outreach in this vital field by organizing teams and partnerships and incubating energy storage research and demonstration-scale projects.

A hallmark and unique characteristic of renewable energy efforts at the Morris campuses has been the ability to test systems at commercial or near-commercial scales. This scale is especially crucial in moving new technologies from labs into the commercial market. CREST expands opportunities for Minnesotans to learn more about energy storage technologies and potential applications. Recently, UMN WCROC announced it will host the $18.6 million US DOE ARPA-E REFUEL Technology Integration 1 metric ton per day ammonia pilot plant. In addition, WCROC received $10 million from the State of Minnesota in the 2021 legislative session through the Xcel Energy RDA account to develop ammonia-fueled power generation and self-contained ammonia storage technologies. UMN Morris announced a new project to develop a large-scale battery-storage demonstration project. These projects are done in collaboration with partners from across the University of Minnesota and with many partners in the public and private sectors.

Leadership at UMN WCROC and UMN Morris are excited to grow the partnership between the two UMN institutions in Morris. The Center brings faculty together from both institutions.

“When it comes to the intersection of energy and agriculture, UMN WCROC has been leading the way for a long time,” says Lee Johnston, Director of Operations at WCROC. "We are working to strengthen farms and rural communities. Clean energy and energy storage are important now and will grow in importance in the years ahead. Using our local natural resources to create electricity, fertilizer, and fuel in the state and region is critically important. CREST is another way the WCROC and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) are blazing a trail into the future. We would not be able to be a global leader in this field without the great support and partnerships within the UMN Morris campus, and the Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Science and the Department of Mechanical Engineering on the Minneapolis campus.”

Acting UMN Morris Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen emphasizes that “Our students are looking for UMN Morris to lead. We know that Morris is a model community in our state and nation. When people come to Morris they see what the future is going to look like. We believe that energy storage will be a part of a clean energy future. And, CREST builds on our climate leadership.”

The U of M partners launched the Center for Renewable Energy Storage Technologies in recognition of previous successes, and in recognition of the challenges ahead to create a clean energy future.

Energy Use in Swine Facilities

The University of Minnesota’s WCROC’s location on the edge of the prairie has established it as an ideal site to research the power of the wind for clean energy use. Research in swine and dairy have included alternative and clean energy components.

WCROC’s farm site includes facilities for swine production that follow conventional norms for nurseries, farrowing and finishing, as well as facilities for investigating alternative methods of housing pigs. Energy use for swine production includes building heating and ventilation, electric loads (lights, augers, etc.), pressure washers and fuel for vehicles. These direct (fossil fuel) energies come primarily from propane and electricity.

The existing swine facilities at the WCROC can be used to model and demonstrate potential energy-efficient retrofits. WCROC’s strategy has been to convert all energy loads to electricity and make these loads as small as possible with efficiency upgrades. Eventually, on-site renewable electric generation could supply some or all of the electric load and allow the building to approach net-zero (producing as much energy as is used).

Energy Consumed

The conventional confinement swine system at WCROC is similar to many smaller swine farms in size and in utilizing a combination of modern and older facilities. Facilities include farrowing, nursery and finishing facilities which use electricity for operate lights, ventilation, motors and augers, and the use of fossil fuels for heating the buildings and creating hot water.

WCROC’s Energy Optimized Swine Systems use a solar power grid to operate an electric heat pump for both heating and cooling of the three stages of swine production.

The ROC’s research team has developed baseline energy consumption information for the swine facilities so that potential energy-optimized systems can be demonstrated and evaluated. Energy-optimized systems include the conversion of existing energy loads to electricity, implementing energy-efficiency measures, and adding renewable electric generation.

Greening of Ag: Improving Energy Use

As part of WCROC’s Greening of Ag Initiative, which began in 2014, solar panels were installed on one of the finishing barns. Researchers’ goals included modeling and demonstrating potential energy-efficient retrofits in order to reduce the amount of energy used in swine production.

The WCROC team took these steps to accomplish the goals:

  1. Conduct energy monitoring of electrical, LP gas, diesel, and water usage to determine baseline use.
  2. Perform life cycle analysis on the various stages of pork production with the goal of developing more efficient and economical energy systems.
  3. Partner with six commercial pork producers that are characteristic of production systems in Minnesota. Monitor their energy usage to establish baseline use.
  4. Installation of a 27 kW solar PV system on the roof of the WCROC finishing barn. The system was interconnected to the utility grid in June, 2015. Researchers estimate the system produces about 36,000 kWh of electricity per year.

Sow Cooling and Piglet Heating

Pig farmers need innovative housing systems that help address environmental and energy concerns while remaining competitive in the global market. Sows and piglets have distinctly different thermal comfort zones which need to be accommodated while lowering the carbon footprint of swine production. On-farm energy auditing determined heat lamps are the largest electric load in breed-to-wean swine facilities. An electric heat pump system was designed to cool sows and provide heat for piglets via in-floor heat exchangers and is powered by a 20 kW solar PV array. The system replaces heat lamps and will hopefully improve sow performance while reducing overall energy usage.

Initial sow cooling research results showed improved sow comfort as measured by statistically significant reduction in sow temperature and a 2-pound-per-day increase in feed consumption. The improved feed intake resulted in reduced weight loss in lactating sows. However, the study showed that litter performance was not statistically improved by the sow cooling system.

The UM’s West Central Research and Outreach Center’s clean energy, heating and cooling studies continue, and with the establishment of the CREST, the next step of energy storage can be developed. 

Information provided by the UMN West Central & Outreach Center, Morris, MN. Diane DeWitte is a UM Extension Educator focused on swine. She can be reached at

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