BOZEMAN — In Yellowstone National Park's scenic Lamar Valley, where wolves and other wildlife are commonly sighted in sagebrush flats tucked amid mountains, a cluster of cabins marks where bison were brought back from the brink of extinction a century ago.
Behind the rustic log exteriors, however, a high-tech project is underway as Montana State University helps the Lamar Buffalo Ranch become more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.
"There are one or two sensors in every building," said Megan Oaklief, an MSU junior majoring in mechanical engineering technology.
The sensors measure how much electricity and propane is used by each of the 16 cabins and a handful of larger buildings, including two ranger residences, she explained during a visit to the facility in September.
The Lamar Buffalo Ranch is where the park's bison — numbering only 25 in 1901 after decades of hunting — were actively managed back into herds of thousands. Many of the cabins were later added when the ranch was repurposed into an educational facility that now hosts K-12 students from around the country. Solar panels were installed in the 1990s and were upgraded in recent years, and a small hydroelectric generator was added. The facility is off-grid, meaning no external electrical lines or natural gas pipes reach it.
Propane is still used for cooking, heating water and running a generator that provides supplemental electricity, so opportunities remain for making the facility more self-sufficient, according to Lynn Chan, a project manager for Yellowstone National Park.
"We're hoping MSU can help us understand how much energy we're using, how it's being used, and, looking to the future, how we can continue to reduce our energy use," Chan said.
The effort comes as some of the cabins are being renovated to add insulation and other efficiency measures.
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"Our goal is to try and reduce our propane use," Chan said.
For Kevin Amende, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, the off-grid buildings present a valuable case study in how to balance the daily and seasonal variations in solar and hydroelectric energy production with the equally dynamic energy use resulting from groups of visitors coming and going. The energy monitoring system will help shed light on how that balance could be better achieved by, for instance, adding solar thermal panels that could heat water during the day when the sun is shining, he said.
According to Chan, the results could have an impact beyond the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.
"We would like to use this as a model for other places in the park," she said.
Since Chan invited MSU to help with the project about five years ago multiple MSU undergraduates have contributed. Oaklief started working with Amende on the project in May.
"I've learned a lot about computer coding and efficient problem solving," said Oaklief, the secretary of MSU's student chapter of ASHRAE, the professional society for heating, air conditioning and related fields. "That's been a new experience for me. It's a challenge."
During September's site visit Oaklief and Amende worked to upgrade the computer system that relays the energy data to MSU. The upgrade marks the start of a final year of monitoring the facility before the researchers analyze the data and make recommendations to the park.
"There's a lot of cool research that's really valuable that can be done by undergrads," Amende said. "I try to empower students to go out and make a difference."