New NREL Facility to Point the Way to Reliable, Renewable Energy Microgrids

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With the potential to incorporate a mix of clean, renewable energy sources and reliably supply electrical power to communities and businesses, microgrids figure big in modernization of the US power infrastructure. Looking to pave the way forward, the US Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is anticipating completion of a new microgrid testing facility, the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) later this year.

The ESIF and a high-performance computing data center will enable NREL researchers, as well as industry practitioners and academic research partners, to simulate entire microgrid distribution systems that incorporate a variety of renewable as well as conventional, power-generation technology and systems, capabilities that have thus far eluded them.

“ESIF is going to be like our current lab on steroids, and will expand our testing scale to 1 megawatt,” NREL Electrical Engineer Greg Martin explained in a NREL press release. “We’ll be able to test large single components like large utility-scale inverters. We’ll also be able to scale up the complexity of our testing.”

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Applied Microgrid Research on Steroids

“Using the Research Electrical Distribution Bus [REDB], and hardware-in-the loop, we’ll be able to connect dozens of sources and loads and be able to test their interactions with each other. Now, we collect single data points. At ESIF, we’ll be able to collect high-speed, time-synchronized data at numerous points throughout the REDB.”

Capable of reliably supplying primary as well as back-up electrical power to local consumers when grid failures occur, microgrids are also seen as key aspects of integrating solar, wind, and other variable power sources into utilities’ larger regional distribution networks and grids.

To test equipment that’s intended to be connected to a utility grid, NREL researchers use new equipment, including an electricity grid simulator that creates a virtual electric grid, Martin continued. These simulate outages and other types of grid disruptions to ensure that the equipment operates as expected without requiring NREL research teams to actually install the physical equipment being tested. That cuts down significantly on time and costs, as well as enabling research teams to test equipment under a wider range of operating scenarios.

“Utilities need to be shown that this technology is safe to integrate into the system and won’t affect the normal operations,” NREL Energy Systems Integration Director Ben Kroposki added. “One of the goals at NREL is to provide that test bed for a variety of scenarios to be run so that utilities can see that the risk is being reduced.”

“ESIF is going to give us more research power, both in the actual electrical power but also in the ability to collect data across all points in the system,” Martin continued. “It will also offer really awesome visualization that will enable us to look at data coming in from different places, to look at simulations and video feeds, in a really nice, easy, big way. We’re sure this visualization capability will help ignite collaborations among NREL, industry, utilities, academia, and government agencies.”

The “Ultimate Example of Energy Democracy”

Such government and industry-sponsored research is bound to yield substantial dividends over the long-term. The US’ power grid infrastructure is overdue for a thorough overhaul and modernization. “While very reliable today, the U.S. electricity grid is old and has gone at least five decades without a significant technological upgrade,” NREL points out.

Advances such as those that have and are being made in renewable energy generation and smart grid infrastructure point the way forward. Microgrids can operate connected to a grid system or as standalone infrastructure capable of meeting electricity loads for just a few homes or businesses on up to military bases, university, and corporate campuses or industrial parks.

“If your home was part of a microgrid, you could continue to receive power even when the utility power goes out,” NREL Electrical Engineer Mariko Shirazi said. “It gives you the ability to ride through any disturbances or outages by seamlessly switching over to locally generated power. A microgrid senses the quality of the power flowing through the grid. In the event of an outage, it can disconnect from the grid at a moment’s notice,” NREL explained.

“It can also leverage solar, wind, or stored energy to supplement a dip in the current power supply. If things are running smoothly with the regional grid, a microgrid generating electricity from renewable sources can export that clean energy to the grid for everyone’s use.”

Globally, microgrid capacity will reach 4.7 gigawatts by 2017, representing $17.3 billion in annual worldwide revenue, Boulder, Colorado–based Pike Research forecast in a June, 2012 report.

“Microgrids are the ultimate example of energy democracy, because they diversify the ownership of supply infrastructure,” says senior analyst Peter Asmus. “Microgrids can offer a quality and diversity of services that incumbent utilities have not been able to offer up to this point in time.  What’s more, the distributed resources on which these systems rely can work together whether they are connected to the larger utility grid or operate in island mode, at the campus or community level.”

Image credit: Flowtrack, with artwork by Alfred Bonnanno

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