Integrated Solutions for a Complex Energy World

Integrated Solutions for a Complex Energy World

Energy systems integration optimizes electrical, thermal, fuel, and data technologies design and performance.

An array of clean energy technologies, including wind, solar, and electric vehicle batteries, is reaching cost parity with conventional sources of energy. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are studying the impact that these technologies have on the energy system infrastructure, as well as how these technologies can operate synergistically with other resources in systems of all scales.

 A photo in which a man in a suit speaks to a group of people in front of several large glass panels, behind which are the components of a data center. Enlarge image

NREL's Ben Kroposki leads a tour of the new Energy Systems Integration Facility's state-of-the-art Data Center.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

While the phrase energy systems integration (ESI) may be relatively new to the energy industry, scientists and engineers at NREL have long held this concept as part of their fundamental mission. In ESI research and development (R&D), existing and emerging systems converge to solve the nation's most important—and complex—energy challenges.

Over the last decade, substantial advances in energy sciences and technologies have met technical, regulatory, and market barriers that challenge large-scale deployment and market adoption. According to scientists, engineers, and analysts, the next step in addressing these challenges is integrating multiple energy sources (renewable, nuclear, and fossil) with energy carriers (electrical, thermal, and fuel systems) to meet numerous changing demands.

In 35 years of advancing renewable energy and energy efficient technologies, NREL has pioneered research spanning solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, and geothermal energy technologies. It has also been at the forefront of efficient building and transportation advances. The laboratory pairs basic science with engineering and analysis to:

  • Design energy production and efficient end-use systems
  • Develop modeling tools to optimize performance
  • Test new technologies
  • Provide market-relevant analysis to governments, utilities, businesses, and universities.

NREL's researchers profoundly understand the systems that produce, deliver, and consume energy—together comprising the full energy "system of systems." The laboratory is also expanding its knowledge base of what it will take to integrate these systems at all scales—from single buildings to large national networks.

By analyzing the relationships among electrical, thermal, and fuel system infrastructures and data and information networks, NREL and its partners are working to optimize integration and interoperability across the entire energy spectrum.

"ESI is the future of managing energy," explains Ben Kroposki, the director of Energy Systems Integration. "It's a considerable shift in how we plan and operate energy networks. By applying an integrated system-of-systems approach, we will achieve a more robust, optimized, and reliable energy system than we could achieve with the traditional single-system view."

A Convergence of Technology Pathways

Since the Industrial Revolution, energy systems have evolved. Earliest systems were small, local, and oriented around a single-service, such as steam engines that supported early mining, transportation, and manufacturing. Today, systems are highly integrated and continental, such as the natural gas and electrical transmission and distribution systems that power our homes and businesses.

Systems that were traditionally isolated infrastructures are increasingly integrated. This integration is occurring within and between systems on various scales—the residential and commercial; campus, city and community; and national and regional scales.

There are four key "paths" that deliver energy or information to customers:

  1. The electricity path is power in the form of electrons delivered primarily from large, central-station power plants to customers, via high-voltage transmission and low-voltage distribution systems.
  2. The thermal path incorporates technologies that carry energy for heating and cooling in gaseous or liquid form. Small-scale applications include heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to homes and businesses, while larger-scale district plants provide heating and cooling to multiple buildings in urban communities.
  3. The fuels path includes both gaseous and liquid fuels typically transferred by pipelines from refineries or production plants, and used in applications such as building heating systems, electricity production, and transportation fuels.
  4. The data path, which integrates the information transference and communication between energy systems and data and information networks. This path links sensor data from multiple locations to control devices and energy management systems, and allows for optimizing and analyzing the energy system's performance.
An illustration showing how electricity, thermal, fuels, and data, all work together to become integrated solutions and make up the discipline of energy systems integration. Enlarge image

In the United States, of all the primary energy that is used, more than half is wasted by inefficient systems. To help address this situation, NREL is advancing an energy systems integration competency that refines empirically driven systems integration simulations, operations, and controls.
Illustration by William Gillies, NREL

From Theory to Application

As today's energy system becomes increasingly complex, maintaining stable, reliable, and economic operations grow more challenging. Successfully integrating multiple technologies and systems requires technical integration studies to evaluate the cost, reliability, and operational impacts of various energy mixes.

It also requires policy analysis to determine, for example, ways that local governments can reduce market barriers by streamlining the processes associated with permitting and financing, thereby reducing the installed costs of clean energy systems.

ESI R&D strives to understand the complex interactions and interdependencies of energy systems and to provide researchers, engineers, manufacturers, utilities, and policy makers with the expertise to address issues of great concern to the nation. These include:

  • Increasing the existing energy infrastructure's flexibility for higher levels of clean energy generation
  • Integrating electricity and fuel infrastructure for transportation applications
  • Creating scalable solutions for optimizing energy across several physical scales, from individual homes to regional areas
  • Using data and information technology to optimize operations and increase an energy system's overall efficiency
  • Solving critical integration issues through the partnership of researchers from technical, economic, and social disciplines.

Realizing the potential energy savings from integrating clean energy technologies requires effective partnerships across the entire spectrum of energy technologies. It also requires the ability to research, develop, analyze, and test these technologies on a controlled, integrated, megawatt-scale energy platform.

NREL's experimental and testing capabilities have expanded with the recent opening of the lab's Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). This facility incorporates large-scale hardware experimentation with advanced computational and simulation capabilities—as well as several other smaller facilities designed to address specialized topics of integration.

"NREL and its partners recognize the growing importance of ESI as a critical multidisciplinary, multifaceted research and development area that will underpin the energy system of the future," Kroposki says. "We are advancing innovations that will inform future energy system architectures, policies, and investments."

According to Kroposki, focusing on energy systems integration and optimization across the energy infrastructure will enable new innovations that increase energy security, reliability, and flexibility.

"Manufacturers and system operators will be able to maximize system functionality with greater certainty and confidence," he says. "Technical innovators will find a richer environment for developing new products and services."

NREL is working to develop new partnerships to optimize energy integration through a broad range of interrelated efforts. The lab's current ESI initiatives include:

NREL's holistic and multidisciplinary approach to energy systems integration will provide economic, security, and environmental benefits to all citizens and help meet the challenges of an increasingly complex energy world.

Learn more about the energy systems integration discipline at NREL.

—Molly Riddell

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