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Academic centers merge to form statewide energy research powerhouse

The state’s largest academic energy research organizations have merged to form a single statewide organization, headquartered in Milwaukee, with a mission of making Wisconsin a nationally recognized center of expertise to advance energy, power and control technologies.

The Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium (WERC) will be announced by the organization’s chairman, Alan Perlstein, along with the selection of its executive director, founder and former ReGENco CEO John Bobrowich, at the group’s first annual research symposium, Wednesday, Sept. 22. The event begins at 8:30 a.m. in Marquette University’s Alumni Memorial Union, 1442 W. Wisconsin Ave., third-floor ballroom.

The consortium brings together the state’s four largest engineering schools — the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marquette University and Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) — with eight industry partners, including American Transmission Company (ATC), DRS Technologies, Eaton, Johnson Controls Inc., Kohler, Rockwell Automation, We Energies and LEM USA.

The organization intends to triple its membership base by the middle of 2011 by adding additional industry and technical college members through its first membership drive, also beginning today.

The Milwaukee universities and their industry partners were previously known as the Southeastern Wisconsin Energy Technology Research Consortium (SWETRC).

Seven research projects were funded by the organization last year and some of those outcomes will be discussed at the WERC research symposium. The projects discussed today cut across a wide variety of advanced energy technologies including biofuels, wind power, energy storage, thermoelectric materials and building energy efficiency.

WERC will be the framework for stimulating basic energy research discovery from funded projects, says Bobrowich, while its sister organization, the Madison-based Center for Renewable Energy Systems (CRES), will be the structure that applies the research to sponsored product development.

The four universities will be jointly involved in the research activities of both WERC and CRES. In addition to a lab at CRES, WERC plans to establish a dedicated lab in Milwaukee to augment the capabilities available through its university members.

“Ultimately the goal of WERC is to develop state-of-the-art technology that will lead to new products and processes that foster the economic growth of Wisconsin companies, stimulate the formation of new companies and prepare residents to work in this expanding and changing field,” says Bobrowich, who also heads up CRES. “Our vision is that Wisconsin will become the Silicon Valley for energy, power and control technologies.”

“In order for this sector to thrive in Wisconsin, we need to expand cutting-edge research and development, advance our workforce size and skill set, and drive ‘real time’ collaboration between our universities, technical colleges, companies, and their supply chain,” says Perlstein. “In WERC, we have the capacity to forward all of these initiatives simultaneously.”

In addition to stimulating innovation, WERC will partner with many of the state’s technical colleges to provide specific energy-related job training. With the support of a grant from the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD), WERC will conduct a study with the Waukesha-Ozaukee-Washington Workforce Development Board and the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, forecasting the needs of employers in energy-related fields in the next decade.

WERC is headquartered in Milwaukee’s 30th Street Industrial Corridor, and its location is symbolic of the consortium’s efforts to couple energy development with workforce development, says Bobrowich. The organization also will conduct K-12 outreach activities that will draw more students, particularly women and minorities, into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

In May, the Wisconsin Office of Energy Independence provided $300,000 in seed capital to start up WERC operations. A similarly sized grant was also provided for CRES. The two organizations activities will be closely coordinated through the Clean Energy Generation Transmission and Storage Systems (CEGTS) Consortium. Other funding comes from a combination of federal, state regional, local and private industry sources.