Bringing Power to Taylor Wilderness
In 1998, Engineering faculty member Herb Hess began a 20-year effort to bring power to the one of the nation’s most rural research stations.
The Taylor Wilderness Research Station is located on 65 acres of the most remote backcountry in the lower 48 — the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
Accessible only via a five-seater, single-engine plane or a 35-mile hike, the station is home to vital research on how human economics impact natural resources.
And in 1998, Herb Hess’s mission was to bring it power.
The goal wasn’t that different from the work the electrical and computer engineering professor did for 32 years in the military, where he used renewable energy to power remote, mobile military bases.
In the military, Hess set up renewable energy systems because they were the only option for power in desolate combat areas. At Taylor, the quest for renewable energies also involves protecting the environment.
“Growing up in my generation, we were still of the mindset that progress and technology were going to give us everything we wanted,” said Hess, who works in the College of Engineering. “Coming to Idaho in 1993 changed my mindset a lot. Being across the street from one of the nation’s leading schools for natural resources, I learned about using our resources wisely and making sure they’re sustainable.”
The Advent of Power
The University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources (CNR) bought the Taylor Wilderness Research Station in 1970. At the time, the facility lacked any semblance of electricity. By the mid-1980s, a solar panel was installed that could power a shortwave radio, allowing station managers to call in grocery orders and make emergency calls.
With the vision of expanding research, CNR teamed up with the College of Engineering in 1997 to give scientists at Taylor access to more sophisticated instrumentation and electronic data collection. But the necessary electrical upgrade couldn’t impact the area’s ecology, which needed to be studied and preserved.
“The more variables you put into a study, the more impact they have on the validity of that study,” said Steve Hacker, CNR’s senior director of operations and outreach. “That’s why hydro and solar are so important out there. By utilizing environmentally friendly power generation, it greatly reduces human impact.”
Under Hess’s supervision, three electrical engineering students installed electricity at Taylor as part of their senior capstone project. They used the existing domestic water collection system in nearby Pioneer Creek, and from that basin ran pipe into a small water turbine, which ran a modest generator from which water ran in and out, leaving the creek’s flow unaffected.
The hydroelectric structure produced up to 600-800 watts of power, allowing research at Taylor to more than triple.
That increase opened the doors to new projects, such as one in 2003 to gain insight into managing endangered fish populations. U of I collaborated with NOAA Fisheries and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to put electronic antennae arrays in Big Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork Salmon River, to monitor the migration of the healthiest wild salmon and steelhead populations in central Idaho.
“From a research infrastructure standpoint, that was a major step,” said Jim Akenson, who served as Taylor’s station manager and research scientist with his wife, Holly, for 21 years. “It brought a lot more involvement and funding from NOAA and eventually from Idaho Fish and Game. That was a big move. And we absolutely could not have done it without electricity.”
The increased electrical output also improved safety for researchers. The center created a beta satellite internet system, which allowed research teams camped within 21 miles to stay in contact through emails, Akenson said.
“We took more electrical research equipment with us into the field because we could charge them up — a portable satellite phone, radio telemetry and other monitoring devices,” said Holly Akenson. “We improved our safety and had stronger check-ins for people in remote locations.”
By 2007, the hydroelectric system needed an upgrade and engineering student and McNair Scholar Justin Schlee took the reins.
In 2010, Schlee and his senior design team installed solar panels at Taylor, put in a battery bank to store the energy, and upgraded the hydroelectric system with a more efficient generator. This array provided 6,000 watts of power — or 10 times more than before.
The improvements opened up a range of opportunities, Hess said, including increased internet access, the ability to support more visitors and the capacity to support three days worth of activity, without interruption from clouds.
Schlee, from Pueblo, Colorado, graduated with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 2010 and now works as an electrical engineering consultant in Denver, serving as one of the state’s leading experts on renewable energies.
“When I had the opportunity to work on the Taylor project, I was all in,” Schlee said. “Dr. Hess was an amazing teacher and I saw the writing on the wall that renewables was a growth industry.”
In 2013, CNR again commissioned Hess and his students to design, build and install data sensors to better understand how climate change is impacting Taylor’s ecosystem — especially carbon dioxide concentration and decreasing snowpack levels.
The proposal became a thesis project for electrical engineering master’s student Derek Neal. Neal powered the sensor network with additional solar panels and miniature wind turbines. He also set up electronics so forest data could be transmitted to Taylor via the internet in real time.
From Colorado Springs, Neal graduated in 2013 and teaches electrical engineering as an associate professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He plans to pursue his doctorate in renewable energies and hopes to contribute to the Air Force’s goal of becoming independent from the public power grid, relying instead on renewable energy.
“Being exposed to the instructors at U of I who have vast experience in the power industry and power protection — they were able to educate me on the whole picture of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels,” Neal said.
With increased power capacity, internet availability and the ability to house up to 35 visitors during spring and summer months, CNR began offering more programming at Taylor. Semester in the Wild, an academic program offered to students in any discipline, began in 2013. The college also sends five to six undergraduates to conduct research every summer in the Taylor wilderness.
“We have a completely renewable energy system out there, and they’re able to conduct a wide range of research,” Hess said. “Making progress in renewable energy is one of my goals as a professor. And with the attitudes that come out of places like the University of Idaho, we will succeed. I’ve had the opportunity to work with students here that are some of the finest engineers on Earth.”
Last summer, Alice McNutt, a senior majoring in virtual technology and design in the College of Art and Architecture, conducted research at Taylor using photogrammetry — the method of taking measurements from photographs — to create 3-D models of animal prints found in the area. Her goal was to test the procedure for accurately identifying animals based on the surface area of their tracks. Researchers could then use that information for supporting the wildlife populations.
“My research required heavy use of a digital camera and laptop, so having reliable power was incredibly important to charge these devices,” McNutt said. “Use of the internet was also beneficial for instances when I hit a roadblock with my software and needed to research new methods.”
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Engineering.
Published in the spring 2018 issue of Here We Have Idaho.
“Making progress in renewable energy is one of my goals as a professor. And with the attitudes that come out of places like the University of Idaho, we will succeed. I’ve had the opportunity to work with students here that are some of the finest engineers on Earth.”Professor Herb Hess