Microgrid system aims to improve Iowa community’s energy reliability, resilience, and affordability

Small Towns

With a $9.48 million grant from the Energy Improvement in Rural or Remote Areas (ERA) program, Montezuma, a town of 1,400 residents, is paving the way for rural communities and serving as a model for the future of local energy systems in Iowa.

The Montezuma microgrid project, a partnership between Iowa State University and the community-owned Montezuma Municipal Light & Power, will install a small-scale power system that can disconnect from the main power grid to operate independently, even when the larger grid is down. The microgrid will use 2.5 megawatt solar arrays and 1.5 megawatt-hour battery storage systems to power 706 residential homes, 201 commercial buildings, and two industries facilities.

The goal of the ERA program is to improve the reliability, resilience, and affordability of energy systems in communities with 10,000 or fewer people. The program was established with $1 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“This project is one of the first renewable microgrids to be used daily by the community and residents,” said Zhaoyu Wang, Northrop Grumman associate professor at Iowa State University and project lead. “Montezuma can use this to attract new businesses, talent, and residents to move to Montezuma because of the various benefits that come from the microgrid, plus all the electricity is powered by the microgrid.”

The addition of a microgrid will provide the City of Montezuma with resilient, reliable, and affordable electricity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By replacing aging substations, load monitoring, and control systems, it is expected that energy costs will drop by approximately 18%, which will reduce costs for Montezuma Municipal Light & Power by an estimated $200,000 per year.

With increased reliability, Zhaoyu said, Montezuma will significantly reduce its operation time and reliance on fossil fuels, while increasing its resilience to extreme weather events like the 2020 derecho.

The grant funding will also be used to purchase two electric vehicle charging stations, a new addition to the community, and to develop workforce training programs.

The collaboration with Iowa State University, several community colleges, and the Muskoka Nation, the only Tribal nation in Iowa, to develop a microgrid training curriculum ensures the project's impact will go beyond the Montezuma area.

Zhaoyu said students will be trained to build new renewable microgrids in other communities, using digital twin technology which allows students to visualize and interact with the operation of the microgrid in real time.

With some communities and utility companies hesitant to invest in renewable microgrids due to financial feasibility, officials with the Montezuma renewable microgrid project aim to prove that such investments can be financially feasible, in addition to providing affordable electricity, increased reliability, and resilience.

More than 40 community groups—including labor unions; veteran, minority, and women-owned businesses; community colleges; and Iowa state and local governments—have endorsed the project with letters of support.

“We want to show other communities that this is financially feasible and sustainable,” Zhaoyu said, adding that he hopes other rural communities will see the benefits and success of the Montezuma microgrid and seek funding to invest in their own renewable microgrid projects.