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The Energy Systems Integration Facility is among the cutting-edge sites NREL uses to collaborate with its partners.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Impacting Innovation and Commercialization: NREL's Partnering Facilities

The award-winning Energy Systems Integration Facility is the latest addition to NREL's partnering sites.

NREL's partner facilities are hard to resist—and increasingly, savvy collaborators from a range of industries are heading to the lab to collaborate. The latest draw is the new Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), which garnered the 2014 Laboratory of the Year Award from the editors of R&D Magazine. The ESIF is helping transform how the United States generates, delivers, and uses energy by modernizing the interplay between energy sources, infrastructure, and data.

The ESIF is not a private resource for NREL researchers, but instead is designed for collaboration. All of the internal labs in the 182,500-square-foot building are connected by the Research Electrical Distribution Bus (REDB), which functions as a power integration circuit capable of connecting multiple sources of energy and interconnecting laboratories and experiments. This functionality allows NREL and its partners to test and simulate what happens when multiple components are connected to the grid. By allowing researchers to engage in examinations ranging from home systems and solar inverters to fuel usage and data, the REDB makes the ESIF a one-of-a-kind world-class testing site.

NREL and HP Combine to Break Boundaries in ESIF Computing

Creating the concept for the ESIF forged a partnership, and the same R&D 100 editors recently gave a 2014 R&D 100 Award to Hewlett-Packard (HP) and NREL for their collaboration in developing the HP Apollo 8000 System based on the ESIF's Peregrine supercomputer. The system uses component-level warm-water cooling to dissipate heat generated by a supercomputer, thereby eliminating the need for expensive and inefficient chillers in the data center.

At the ESIF dedication in 2013, Paul Santeler, vice president of the Hyperscale Business Group at HP, said the collaboration with NREL on the lab's high-performance computer and data center was the best partnership he's been a part of because both the company and laboratory learned so much—knowledge that will help other data centers.

He noted that when Steve Hammond, director of NREL's Computational Science Center, brought him the concept, he wasn't certain about it. "We were doing something very unique and different—breaking boundaries," Santeler said, adding the partnership succeeded so well that "we're making it commercially available so others can take advantage."

"NREL is the partner we needed and wanted for the first-born in the Apollo family,” said Nic Dubé, Peregrine's system architect and HP's technical lead for Apollo. "From the NREL perspective, we greatly benefit from these partnerships as well," said Hammond. "We have the opportunity to provide early design input and feedback to our partners to improve the product, and we have the satisfaction of knowing that we contributed to a product we will use and that will help the entire industry."

Together, NREL and HP solved unforeseen hurdles; for instance, while it took almost three weeks to custom build the plumbing for four computer racks in the engineering prototype phase, the partners streamlined the process using modular plumbing so that for phase II, the team installed 18 racks in less than a week—a key improvement for market viability. "They truly enabled the technology to come out," Dubé said. And there are expectations on both sides that the lab and HP will continue to work closely together.

Utilities, too, are exploring the ESIF's potential. Xcel Energy CEO and Chairman Ben Fowke said the ESIF will become even more important now that solar and wind are in many cases cost competitive with fossil fuels. Already, wind forecasting software developed at NREL and elsewhere saved Xcel $20 million annually.

But the ESIF is not the only site on NREL's campus earning praise—or attracting collaborators. In 2008, R&D Magazine gave a special award for the Science & Technology Facility, noting the 71,000-square-foot laboratory was the first federal building to achieve the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building rating from the U.S. Green Buildings Council.

Collaborations in Solar Energy Help Produce a World Leader

One person who has seen plenty of collaborative usage is Tim Gessert, an NREL principal scientist who, along with many other NREL researchers, helped pioneer cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar panels with industry. DOE recognized the lab's role, and NREL's Thin Film Photovoltaic Partnership Project led research and development on emerging thin-film solar technologies in the United States from 1994 to 2009. "In the early years, our primary goal was to understand all the roadblocks the industry was encountering," said Gessert, whose work is often cited in solar energy literature. "We visited the sites to learn about the challenges and there were many first meetings."

In 1991, NREL and an early CdTe manufacturer, Golden Photon, earned an R&D 100 Award for the development of a CdTe photovoltaic (PV) module manufacturing process. By 1996, Golden Photon was able to provide the U.S. Navy with a 25-kilowatt array of CdTe modules. Another early partner, Solar Cells, Inc., proved a thin-film cost structure that gave rise to many start-up thin-film PV companies—and led to the creation of First Solar, LLC, a leading worldwide PV manufacturer that has benefited from CdTe technology.

First Solar installed CdTe modules at NREL's Outdoor Test Facility in 2003 for long-term, outdoor performance monitoring. The company also enlisted NREL's expertise to help improve light transmission into the electrical junction and understand junction formation and related avenues for performance improvement. This work assisted First Solar's efforts to produce lower cost and higher efficiency thin-film modules.

Together, NREL and First Solar developed a unique process for manufacturing high-efficiency thin-film CdTe cells on low-cost commercial glass. The process, which quickly deposits uniform layers of semiconductor material for solar panels, won a 2003 R&D100 Award and was considered a significant milestone in the race to produce cost-competitive solar energy. "We are still foundational partners in the endeavors to reduce costs," Gessert said, citing a number of on-going agreements between the lab and First Solar.

And NREL has a strong record with the auto industry. Not only is the ESIF available, but another key facility is the Vehicle Testing and Integration Facility (VTIF), which opened several years ago and is one of the very few places to examine components of electric vehicles, grid integration, and infrastructure.

NREL's Vehicle Thermal Management team is using the VTIF thermal test pad for both light- and heavy-duty vehicle climate control efficiency research with industry partners. For example, a collaboration with Ford seeks to reduce the impact of heating and cooling on electric drive vehicle range by 10% when the climate control is on.

VTIF is also engaged for partnerships with both Volvo Trucks and Daimler's SuperTruck project researching methods to help reduce the 667 million gallons of fuel used for long-haul truck rest period idling in the United States. The goal of this project is to reduce climate control for long-haul truck rest period idling by 30%.

And with the National Wind Technology Center, NREL also has a strong history of partnering with wind energy technology companies, testing turbines and their components. "We're extremely proud and excited to work with NREL and the Department of Energy," said Andy Geissbuehler, vice president and general manager of Alstom Power Wind Business North America. "We chose the right partner. We would like to continue the partnership and work with NREL on off-shore wind."

Partnering: An Engine for Innovation

FALL 2014 / Issue 7

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Editorial Team

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