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NREL's Capabilities Boost a Wide Range of Innovative ARPA-E Research

NREL’s ARPA-E funded projects range from solar cell and wind turbine innovation to novel controls and open-access models for improving the U.S. electric grid.

March 17, 2016

The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will play key roles in a variety of projects recently funded by the Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). NREL's innovative approaches have received five awards across three different ARPA-E programs for advancing transformational technologies to generate, store, and use energy more efficiently, at lower costs and with reduced emissions.

"We have great laboratory capabilities that align with the work of ARPA-E and are excited to continue to make an impact," Associate Laboratory Director Bill Farris said. "As the nation's energy system transforms to be more resilient, with energy efficiency and renewable energy playing an increasingly larger role, it is important that NREL continue to support these types of advancements in helping the United States reach its energy goals."  

ARPA-E announced its OPEN 2015 program awards under a highly competitive, open solicitation. Awards fund a broad spectrum of projects from across the country, each intended to achieve transformational advancement in a variety of energy technologies. NREL received two awards under this program: one to lead the development of a novel process in solar cell manufacturing; another to support the advancement of extreme-scale, offshore wind turbines. 

  • Ultrahigh Efficiency Photovoltaics at Ultralow Costs - NREL will lead the research into a manufacturing process for producing high quality solar cells at greatly reduced costs. NREL's approach has the potential to cut solar cell fabrication costs by an order of magnitude less than current state-of-the-art technologies, while also achieving greater than 30 percent solar conversion efficiency. This can open new markets to high-efficiency solar cells that were previously unavailable due to high production costs.
  • 50 MW Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotors for Wind Energy - Researchers from NREL are part of a team led by the University of Virginia that is designing 50-megawatt, extreme-scale wind turbines. These huge, unconventional turbines could significantly expand access to offshore wind energy. The team's approach relies on an ultralight new blade design coupled with a "morphing" rotor that adapts to wind speed to reduce blade loads. NREL will help design the turbine's unique blades, and determine the potential overall systems cost savings for the turbine design. The lab will also facilitate testing and demonstration of the technology's critical attributes using the laboratory's Controls Advanced Research Turbine platform, a turbine specifically configured to test advanced controls.

Also, under its Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems (NODES) program, ARPA-E announced a total of 12 innovative projects, including two at NREL. NODES seeks to address the challenges of optimal grid operation under an increasing diversity of distributed energy resources such as residential solar, as well as evolving energy-use patterns. The NODES program has a goal of enabling renewable penetration at a level of 50 percent or greater.

  • Real-time Optimization and Control of Next-Generation Distribution Infrastructure - NREL will develop a comprehensive distribution network management framework that unifies real-time voltage and frequency control at the home/distributed energy resource (DER) controllers' level with network-wide energy management at the utility/aggregator level. The distributed control architecture continuously steers the outputs of DERs toward operating points that are optimal in a socio-economic sense, while procuring and dispatching reserves to the main grid. The control algorithms invoke elementary mathematical operations that can be embedded on low-cost microcontrollers, and enable distributed decision making on time scales that match the dynamics of distribution systems with high renewable integration. The team includes NREL, Southern California Edison, California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Minnesota.
  • A Robust Distributed Framework for Flexible Power Grids - NREL will support the University of Minnesota in its efforts to develop a comprehensive approach to the challenges of widespread unpredictable renewable power generation. NREL will leverage the world-class capabilities of its Energy Systems Integration Facility to test the project's design approach across many different scenarios while using more than 100 physical devices, such as photovoltaics and battery storage inverters.

And under its GRID DATA program, ARPA-E announced seven project awards. GRID DATA will develop open-access, power system models and associated data repositories. NREL received one award, partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Comillas-IIT and GE Grid Services (formerly Alstom Grid).

  • Synthetic Models for Advanced, Realistic Testing of Distribution systems and Scenarios (Smart-DS) - The NREL-led team will develop fully-synthetic distribution power grid models complemented by customizable, standard scenarios of technology deployment and high-resolution renewable resource data. These enhanced datasets and associated data building tools are intended to provide large-scale test cases that realistically describe potential future grid systems and enable the nation's research community to more accurately test advanced algorithms and control architectures.      

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Energy Department by The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.

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