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Energy Systems Integration Facility to Transform U.S. Energy Infrastructure

ESIF will house a variety of research that aims to overcome challenges related to interconnection and integration of renewable energy onto the electrical grid.
Illustration courtesy of SmithGroup

Energy Systems Integration Facility to Transform U.S. Energy Infrastructure

The nation's electricity infrastructure needs a 21st century overhaul. NREL's newest research facility will lead the way.

Everyone knows that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. But not many know that one of his greatest inventions was not the invention itself, but the research laboratory from whence it came. Edison's original research and development laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., was the first of its kind and revolutionized the process of technological research.

Later, the fusion of business and technology achieved at his West Orange, N.J. facility provided a model for modern corporate and governmental research, development, and testing laboratories. It was there that Edison tested the basis for making the generation and distribution of electricity commercially feasible.

Now, more than a century after the electric age began, our nation's electricity generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure is poised for a 21st century hi-tech overhaul. Enabling the integration of renewable energy, more efficient utilization of existing production technology, advanced communications and controls, and information technology on our nation's aging grid require unique capabilities that are not found in today's energy infrastructure.

This presents a number of challenges that need to be overcome. To do so will require a dedicated facility that can carry out research, development, and megawatt-scale testing of critical transmission and distribution-level components of future electric supply and demand systems.

Enter the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF).

Illustration of a modern and efficient laboratory building

ESIF will seamlessly nestle into NREL's South Table Mountain site and is designed to respect the master plan of the NREL campus.

Illustration of a modern and efficient laboratory building

As shown in this illustration, topographical issues were carefully considered in the architecture of ESIF in order to respect the natural surroundings.

Illustration of a modern and efficient laboratory building

The transverse section of the ESIF will preserve the natural arroyo that runs through the site.

Illustration of a modern and efficient laboratory building

Outdoor test areas will accommodate low- and medium-voltage experiments, rooftop testing, and energy storage.

Nearly four years in the making, ESIF (pronounced ē-sif) will enable complex multi-system research, development, validation and testing by fully integrating advanced simulation and data analysis. Complex system modeling and simulation with hardware validation at megawatt-scale powers is the unique feature of the ESIF. This will provide laboratory assets required to transform the electricity system by collapsing the time from innovation to market and enabling deployment speeds and scales commensurate with national objectives.

Importantly, this partnering facility will provide industry partners the opportunity to work with NREL and insert their individual technologies into a controlled integrated energy system platform to test and optimize the technologies to reduce the risk of early market penetration.

"ESIF will do something different. It will fill research gaps and provide a national focal point for systems-integration R&D. ESIF will be one of a few facilities in the country capable of providing for the fully integrated field-testing of hardware and software technologies, enabling advanced visualization and simulation, establishing a virtual utility operations platform, and providing Smart Grid interoperability testing and validation," said Robert Shapard, chairman of GridWise Alliance.

With ESIF's first-of-its-kind features and capabilities, NREL will be able to fully assess systems as a whole—a system made up of many interacting and interdependent subsystems—and realize the performance and reliability impacts from generation, to transmission, to distribution, and the built environment.

Understanding the vision of the ESIF and recognizing this facility will provide innovative solutions, industry has shown a growing interest in being a part of the ESIF. "No integrated system and component testing capability similar to the ESIF currently exists in the public- or private-sectors, substantiating a clear national need for the level of research and testing the ESIF can accommodate," said Dr. Dave Mooney, director of NREL's Electricity, Resources and Building Systems Integration Center. "Participation from utilities, equipment manufacturers, renewable systems integrators, universities, and other national labs and related industries in fully utilizing ESIF's capabilities will dramatically accelerate the research required to transform the energy system to one that is cleaner, more secure, and more reliable."

Research Focus

With the collaboration of industry partners and NREL's more than 30 years of experience, the ESIF will house a variety of research that aims to overcome technical barriers to effectively and reliably operating energy systems with high levels of renewable energy. Integration research will include, but is not limited to:

  • Building and facility systems,
  • Community power generation and microgrids,
  • Utility generation, and
  • Grids that incorporate renewable energy (solar, wind, hydrogen, advanced vehicles), energy efficiency technologies, electricity system architectures, and grid interoperability.

Labs and Equipment

To support these areas of research, the 185,000-sq. ft. ESIF will house approximately 200 scientists and engineers, more than 14 fully equipped laboratories, the Insight Visualization Center, High Bay Control Room, and several outdoor test beds.

Visualization Capabilities

Planned electricity systems visualization capabilities at the ESIF go beyond what would be found in a typical utility operations center. Fully integrated with hardware-in-the-loop at power capabilities, an experimental distribution bus, and a high-performance computing center, the ESIF visualization center will offer a view of complex systems operations internal to the laboratory, as well as the ability to visualize complex systems simulations and operations in a completely virtual environment. Additionally, the visualization center will offer a view of the impact of systems operating in the laboratory on a simulated system through the hardware- and systems-in-the-loop capability.

Hardware-in-the-Loop at Power

ESIF Snapshot

  • Cost : $135M
  • Square feet: 185,000
  • Occupants: 200
  • Super computer: teraflop-scale; planned to be expanded to petaflop-scale
  • State-of-the-art electric systems simulation and visualization in an HPC environment
  • Component and systems testing and validation at MW-scale powers
  • Integration of functioning systems with utility system simulations for real-time, real-power evaluation of high penetration scenarios
  • Construction complete: summer 2013

Hardware-in-the-loop simulation is not a new concept, but adding megawatt-scale power takes research to another dimension. Equipped with grid simulators, the ESIF's Systems Performance Laboratory is the test lab for development of the power electronics components and circuits used in clean and sustainable energy integration.

The ESIF will be the place to do hardware-in-the-loop testing with low- to megawatt-scale power capability," said Dr. Bill Kramer, senior engineer at NREL, "bringing research to the forefront of today's technology. It will allow researchers and manufacturers to conduct integration tests at power and actual load levels in real-time simulation, and evaluate component and system performance before going to market." Dr. Kramer provides the ESIF design-build firm with mechanical and electrical lab planning guidance from both a functional and safety perspective.

Distribution Bus Network

The research electrical distribution bus (REDB) is a specialized network capable of connecting multiple sources of energy, interconnecting laboratories, and experiments to test and simulate equipment. It is what connects power electronics, megawatt-scale grid simulators, electrical load banks, smart grid technology evaluation capabilities, and power electronic inverters and converters. Integrated throughout the ESIF, the distribution bus is tied into a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system that centrally collects, displays, and stores information from data collection points across all ESIF labs.

The distribution bus electrically connects experiments between labs and will enable the operation and performance characterization of integrated power systems and components using a variety of renewable energy and fossil fuel powered electric generators, coupled with appropriate loads, grid simulators and storage systems.

High-Performance Computing Capability

In addition to the visualization capabilities of the Systems Performance Laboratory, the ESIF will include a high-performance computing and data center that will expand NREL's capabilities in modeling and simulation of renewable energy technologies and their integration into the existing energy infrastructure. The HPC capability will allow large-scale simulation and modeling of fully integrated systems; molecular and nanoscale simulation that evade direct observation; and the integration of resource mapping and forecasting to perform simulated forecasts and risk analysis.

The teraflop-scale (planned to be expanded to petaflop-scale or one quadrillion floating-point operations per second) high-performance computer will enable large-scale modeling and simulation of material properties, processes and fully integrated systems that would be too expensive, too dangerous, or even impossible, to study by direct experimentation and help NREL researchers advance renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

The ESIF will achieve a minimum power usage effectiveness rating of 1.06 for the High Performance Computing Center, making the facility one of the most energy efficient in the world.

Sustainable NREL

Edison envisioned the ideal laboratory as a unique and cutting-edge assembly of equipment that would set an unprecedented standard of excellence. Add NREL's expertise—and you have the ESIF.

This showcase facility will not only meet the nation's crucial research objectives for integrating clean and sustainable energy technologies into the grid, but will be built in accordance with the U.S. Green Buildings Council's standards and is expected to achieve at minimum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certification.

Following the lead of NREL's newest campus addition, the Research Support Facility, the ESIF will demonstrate NREL's commitment to a sustainable energy future with its energy-saving workplace environment. The ultra-efficient building design will include energy efficient features such as natural ventilation through operable windows, daylighting, open air cubicles, and radiant heating and cooling.

Meeting the Challenge

Transforming the nation's energy infrastructure is a tall order and arguably the most significant challenge facing our country today. The breakthrough energy technologies and interconnection solutions that NREL and its industry partners will develop and test in this dedicated facility will be critical to transforming the nation's energy infrastructure at an unprecedented rate, bringing with it a secure and sustainable energy future to the United States.

Were Edison alive today and witness to the ESIF, he would probably marvel over the advanced technology and modernized design of one of his greatest inventions, and applaud NREL's efforts in advancing DOE's and our nation's energy goals.

Illustrations courtesy of SmithGroup

The Utility-Scale Future

Spring 2011 / Issue 1

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