Energy & Automation


Learn more about:

Powering the future

The state’s manufacturing expertise, combined with innovative thinking and roots in the state’s universities, creates a powerful spark for growth in Wisconsin’s energy and automation industries.

The state is already home to several large manufacturers with ties to the energy sector. Prominent among them are Kohler Co., which makes generators in addition to its plumbing fixtures; Johnson Controls, a producer of advanced batteries and other energy storage devices; and Rockwell Automation, which manufacturers control systems and other products to aid in manufacturing automation. Combined with the brainpower at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University and other state colleges and universities, an ideal environment for innovation in the energy sector has been created. This is according to Alan Perlstein, executive director of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC).


“There are a lot of synergies coming together around energy and the power and controls sector space, not only in Wisconsin, but around the Midwest,” he said.

- Advertisement -

“It’s a high-tech field with good-paying jobs and is definitely in a growth mode,” adds Michael Corradini, director of the Wisconsin Energy Institute (WEI). “We can build on the success already here and grow it more.”

Perlstein agreed. “We hope companies will stay here and create new jobs,” he said. “The Midwest is home to a huge number of companies involved in the manufacturing or distribution of energy, storage or controlling it. We want to be in that sweet spot where it comes together.”

Both Perlstein and Corradini believe the next wave of innovation will come in the distributed energy storage industry – an area where Milwaukee-founded Johnson Controls (JCI) is already a leader.

- Advertisement -

According to a Navigant survey, that industry is poised to grow from $675 million in 2014 to $15.6 billion by 2024. More companies using green energy solutions, such as wind and solar, can store excess power in storage batteries and tap into it when needed. For example, companies could use the stored energy when wholesale prices rise, which can save them money.

Chicago’s Merchandise Mart is the first large client signed up for a new Johnson Controls system that uses both the lithium metal production technology it makes for hybrid vehicles and the storage systems from its building efficiency division. The Merchandise Mart already uses an energy-through-demand response program, which shuts off or powers down energy-intensive operations when prices are high. The new system will allow the Mart to adjust quickly to changing conditions on the electric grid and has the potential to save it up to 35 percent on energy costs, said John Schaaf, vice president for Johnson Controls’ distributed energy storage department.

The Wisconsin Energy Institute at the University of Wisconsin is active in biomass creation research, which looks at taking biomass – such as wood chips – and converting it into energy. (Matthew Wisniewski)
The Wisconsin Energy Institute at the University of Wisconsin is active in biomass creation research, which looks at taking biomass – such as wood chips – and converting it into energy. (Matthew Wisniewski)

While Johnson Controls has a robust in-house program to develop new technologies, the WEI and M-WERC are playing an integral role in developing the “what’s next” in energy generation.

- Advertisement -

Launched in 2009, the WEI supports the energy-related research of more than 100 faculty members and scientists at the UW-Madison campus.

Corradini said the institute’s goals are not only to discover and deploy innovative energy technologies, but also to engage the industry in research collaborations.

“The goal is that these research activities will lead to the development of new processes and that new companies and more jobs will be formed,” he said. “What we do here is definitely related to economic growth.”

M-WERC, of which the WEI is a member, was formed to create a cluster focused on the energy, power and control sector drawing its members from businesses, and educational and research institutions. Its focus is on collaboration and pulling together ideas, Perlstein said.

The Energy Innovation Center (EIC) is part of that innovation. It opened last year inside Century City Tower. It provides a physical connection for members, who can take advantage of its office, meeting and lab space, including room to prototype new products. The building is also home to several tenants.

“We’re big believers in open innovation and leveraging where we are now and where our members want to go,” Perlstein said. “It’s about developing technology and using it in new ways.”

Investment is necessary for energy innovation to happen, Corradini said. Late in 2015, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation awarded the WEI a $3.5 million grant to help fund advance energy research.

The WEI is active in biomass conversion research, which has the potential to transform the energy creation industry, Corradini said. “We’re never going to get away from using fossil fuels, but if we can use them more efficiently and find other ways to generate energy, that is what we’re going after,” he said.

The WEI also collaborates with a number of businesses, including Johnson Controls, Inc. and ExxonMobile, on energy research projects. (Matthew Wisniewski)
The WEI also collaborates with a number of businesses, including Johnson Controls, Inc. and ExxonMobile, on energy research projects. (Matthew Wisniewski)

The WEI also collaborates with industry leaders. For example, it’s working with ExxonMobile to research the fundamental chemistry of converting biomass into transportation fuels. Researchers previously used expensive precious metal catalysts such as platinum for biomass conversion, but WEI researchers led by George Huber, a UW professor of chemical and biological engineering, are trying to identify cheaper catalytic materials to use in the process.

“Our work is related to research and development with the goal of creating processes that can help businesses grow,” said Corradini, adding that WEI is also working with a couple of northeastern Wisconsin companies on developing advanced heat exchangers for industrial use.

HyRax Energy is one company that grew out of research done at WEI. UW biochemistry professor Ron Raines developed a process that takes cellulosic biomass and converts it into renewable fuels and high-value chemicals. HyRax then partnered with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to accelerate the product’s commercial development.

At M-WERC, it’s also about helping startups get off the ground.  That’s where WERC-Bench Labs comes in. A 12-week accelerator program, it paired nine startups with highly experienced and technical mentors in hopes of helping them get to the next level. The first session was held last summer and another is slated for this year.

As the program ends, participants have  a demo day where they share their ideas. The first class featured new technologies ranging from underwater drones to wearable devices used to monitor muscle recovery rates, according to  Greg Meier, the program’s managing director.

WERCBench is now expanding with two additional offerings to bookend the program – a class to help people prepare for the accelerator application process and a class for program graduates that helps them keep moving forward by teaching them about the metrics they’ll need to deliver to potential investors, Meier said.

Sign up for the BizTimes email newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

What's New


Sponsored Content

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep up with the issues, companies and people that matter most to business in the Milwaukee metro area.

By subscribing you agree to our privacy policy.

No, thank you.
BizTimes Milwaukee