Breakthrough NREL Lab Could Solve Renewables-Grid Integration Problems

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Grid integration is the million-dollar question for clean energy – as renewables, electric vehicles, and the smart grid scale up, how will they impact reliability?

ESIF exterior
ESIF exterior rendering via NREL

Well, we now have a million-dollar answer from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). NREL has launched the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), a revolutionary research facility dedicated solely to researching how clean energy technology can integrate to the grid at utility-scale.

When it officially opens this summer, ESIF will host 200 researchers in nearly 20 experimental labs and test beds across 182,500 square feet, and will be the nation’s first megawatt-scale clean energy grid integration research & development facility.

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NREL’s Answer To Cleantech-Grid Integration Challenges

America’s grid was built out decades ago on the premise of a centralized energy system of massive power plants transmitting electricity across vast distances. But the rise of variable renewable electricity and growing clamor for distributed generation and resilient communities means that paradigm is changing for good.

While change may be good, variable power supply and depand aren’t – at least for the grid. Even though wind forecasting technology has been introduced to US utilities, 36-hour solar forecasting is in the works, and breakthrough renewables forecasting could hit the grid by 2015, grid operators still have to deal with the inherent peaks and valleys that come from plugging in weather-dependent power sources and plugin-dependent electric vehicles.

Enter ESIF. The facility boasts multiple capabilities dedicated to solving electricity generation, transmission, and grid operation challenges created by America’s transition to a clean energy future on an aging energy infrastructure. Integration research will include work on building and facility systems, community renewable energy generation, microgrids, utility-scale renewable systems, vehicle-to-grid interactions, and energy efficiency effects.

ESIF is open to corporate and academic use alike, with corporations paying the full cost of conducting research in exchange for retaining their intellectual property and data rights, and academic users paying a discounted fee in exchange for agreeing to publish their research results.

“No integrated system and component testing capability similar to the ESIF currently exists in the public or private sectors,” said Dave Mooney of NREL. “ESIF’s capabilities will dramatically accelerate the research required to transform the energy system.”

Breakthrough Testing Facilities, LEED Efficiencies

ESIF’s most promising feature is the ability to demonstrate renewable-grid integration at utility-scale output. The facility’s megawatt-scale hardware-in-the-loop system will allow researchers and manufacturers to test integration at actual grid load levels during real-time simulations to evaluate performance before going to market.

ESIF lab layout
ESIF facility layout via NREL

And since megawatt-scale testing creates mega data, ESIF includes a petascale-level supercomputer capable of handling large-scale modeling at one quadrillion operations per second. This kind of simulation would otherwise be too expensive or impossible to conduct in real-world settings. Interestingly, ESIF’s supercomputer is not only the fastest supercomputer dedicated to clean energy research, but also one of the most energy-efficient in the world.

In addition to advanced testing and supercomputing, ESIF will also feature an immersive data visualization center that empowers researchers to interact with their data sets and experiments in a completely virtual environment.

Even though all these features mean ESIF is going to use a lot of energy, it will also conserve as much as possible. The facility is being built to US Green Building Council Standards in order to achieve LEED Gold status and will include features like reuse of data center/lab waste energy for heating, daylighting combined with high-efficiency lighting, and multiple innovative cooling systems.

Solar Tenant Could Be First Of Many

It’s still a bit too soon to say if ESIF is the key to unlocking America’s clean energy and smart grid potential, but the facility already has its first occupant, Advanced Energy Industries. The Colorado-based company is developing low-cost high-efficiency solar power inverters, and may represent the vanguard in a new wave of renewable-grid integration breakthroughs.

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