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NREL's Energy Systems Integration Supporting Facilities

NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility opened in December, 2012.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

NREL's Energy Systems Integration Supporting Facilities

Five recently constructed facilities prove clean technology performance for tomorrow's energy systems.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recognizes energy systems integration's (ESI) growing importance in designing and managing the energy systems of the near future. A major factor in understanding systems integration issues and solutions is developing research facilities that can evaluate new technologies in a full-system context. To that end, several of the facilities on NREL's campus are designed to support ESI research.

Energy Systems Integration Facility

Critical to moving clean energy technologies onto the energy infrastructure is the performance and reliability of individual technologies and understanding what impact these new technologies have on the larger energy system's stability.

Being risk adverse, utilities have notoriously high standards for proven product performance and will wait for convincing field-tested demonstrations of reliability before investing. Utilities require a reliable working demonstration before deploying new infrastructure, but the system must first be deployed by the entrepreneur to demonstrate reliability.

This demonstrated reliability requirement presents quite a predicament for utilities and energy stakeholders alike because comprehensive utility-scale test demonstrations are neither cost effective to build nor readily available for field use.

The Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), which opened in late 2012, allows for large-scale experimentation and demonstration of advanced energy technologies and complete systems. In addition, it houses one of the world's fastest and most energy efficient supercomputers.

It will be one of the nation's first facilities that can conduct integrated megawatt (MW) scale research and development of the components and strategies needed to safely move clean energy technologies into the nation's energy system at the speed and scale required to meet national goals.

ESIF-centered research, development, and experimentation will center on overcoming a variety of challenges facing our nation's energy system. These include:

  • Integrating higher levels of renewable energy into the electrical grid
  • Developing advanced fuels such as hydrogen to replace petroleum
  • Evaluating the use of advanced energy storage technologies
  • Expanding the electrification of the transportation system.

Areas of research will include electric systems, buildings and facility systems, community power generation and microgrids, utility generation, thermal and hydrogen systems, energy efficient and advanced grid technologies, electricity system architectures, and interoperability of components and systems.

Designed for Experimental and Testing Interconnectedness

The ESIF has been designed so that experiments in laboratories and outdoor test areas can be interconnected to test larger systems. One of its unique capabilities is an integrated computer subsystem, or research bus, that can transfer data between computers in electricity, thermal, and fuel systems.

A photo of racetrack switchboards in the research electrical distribution bus room at the ESIF.

The racetrack switchboards in the REDB room of the ESIF are capable of 1,600 amps and are part of the facility's 1 megawatt testing capabilities.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

This research electrical distribution bus (REDB) works as a power integration circuit that connects multiple sources of energy, which will allow interconnection between experiments, laboratories, and outdoor test areas. The ESIF's bus structure provides two alternating current (AC) and two direct current (DC) electrical rings that can test equipment up to a megawatt scale and operate a number of simultaneous experiments.

An integrated thermal distribution bus can test heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems as well as combined heat and power (CHP) applications that require controlling input water temperature or capturing waste heat. A research boiler and chiller precisely control a thermal water loop to test these applications.

In addition, the ESIF's integrated fuel system provides natural gas and hydrogen throughout the laboratory space for fueling applications. A large, renewable energy-powered electrolyzer provides hydrogen for the laboratories. A supervisory control and data acquisition system (SCADA) overlays the entire laboratory infrastructure to provide safety and control for operations as well as high-speed data collection and storage.

High-Performance Computing Measured by Petaflop

The ESIF houses NREL's most advanced high-performance computer. With 1 petaflop of processing power, this computer vastly expands the lab's computational and visualization capabilities. This system supports a variety of research at NREL and provides the horsepower to drive complex mathematical models and simulations.

Several ESIF labs are set up to run visualizations from simulation model outputs. Because these rooms can be configured to act as utility operations centers and energy management control rooms, system operators can use them to run through scenarios that may involve deploying large amounts of renewable and energy efficiency technologies. In one of the visualization laboratories, researchers can be immersed in a 3D environment. This allows a virtual way to evaluate ideas in 3D before a prototype is developed.

Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing Simulations

Connecting the hardware testing and evaluation to the simulation area requires unique expertise in what is called hardware-in-the-loop (HIL). HIL testing connects both the input and output of hardware testing to a simulation environment. The simulation environment virtually places a device that is being tested into the context of a larger system.

In application, this means that when a new PV inverter is being tested under controlled lab conditions, researchers will also be able to simulate connecting the device's outputs to a large distribution circuit.

Using HIL testing, researchers can study the impacts of new technologies at the exact physical scale that they would encounter in a real-world deployment—an essential part of designing the integrated energy systems of tomorrow.

Learn more about the Energy Systems Integration Facility.

NREL Leads Energy Systems Integration

Issue 4

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Editorial Team

  • Kim Adams | Managing Editor
  • Bill Gillies | Creative Director
  • Dennis Schroeder | Photographer
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