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Q&A with Adarsh Nagarajan: Energy Storage as an Entity and Asset

Apr. 29, 2019

Adarsh Nagarajan

Adarsh Nagarajan is the group manager for Power System Design and Planning at NREL. One of his specializations includes finding solutions and understanding grid integration challenges of various emerging technologies, such as solar, wind, and energy storage systems. We sat down with Nagarajan to learn more about the exciting new collaborations he’s part of at NREL. The following has been edited for length.

What first got you interested in power systems design?

Since I was an undergraduate student, I’ve been interested in power systems. I’ve always been an electrical engineering person. When I was at Arizona State University for my graduate studies, I was fortunate to be part of this amazing initiative from DOE called SunShot. I learned there is so much research to be done to better understand the layers of grid-integration challenges that come with using emerging technologies to their maximum potential; every topic is really worth thinking about. My dissertation was about working with distribution utilities, and it became key to me to think about how a topic would help a real-world utility.

As the new group manager for Power System Design and Planning, what are some of your objectives for this research area?

When I was first framing ideas for the group, I was learning from how well my prior managers had managed the group, and I was trying to look for something I could add value to. One of the things I’ve been successful at since starting at NREL in 2015, particularly within the Power Systems Engineering Center, is managing non-DOE strategic partnership projects (SPPs). When I became a manager, this was my big chance to further emphasize diversifying into SPPs. My group has a decent mix of dynamic partner projects as well as some projects with DOE, and we make sure to get visibility on both sides.

Are there any new strategic partnership projects you’re particularly excited about?

One of the largest projects we’ve gotten from an SPP, without any DOE or federal funding, is the Residential Battery Research Program with a utility from Arizona called the Salt River Project. This is a multiyear effort with emphasis on understanding and supporting utilities to incentivize customers to use behind-the-meter battery storage to its maximum potential—it’s a very exciting project to be part of. We are only about six months into the project. Not only did the distribution utility want to know how a customer uses storage but also in what way they use it and what motivates them to use it. This led to a multiyear partnership with NREL, and we are now working on understanding the very basics of what energy storage can and cannot do, why it does things the way it does, and how it benefits the utility and the customer. These very fundamental questions are consuming us, and we’re learning more every day.

We’re also involved in an interesting high-impact project with a U.K.-based company called Centrica Business Solutions where we are trying to understand the rules of hybrid battery storage when it comes to commercial customers. We want to look at what energy storage commercial customers have inside their buildings and see how they use it so that we can understand the battery value streams and customers’ needs. In general, I’m striving toward concentrating on energy storage of all sorts: battery, hydrogen, thermal, and more. I want to understand the applicability of them, their value streams, and how people should be using them.

How is NREL’s collaboration with Sumitomo Electric furthering research on energy storage and supporting utilities?

Sumitomo Electric is a very large company located in Japan. One of their core research areas includes this technology for vanadium redox flow batteries. It’s a particular sub-chemistry technology, and Sumitomo Electric has installed it for operation in California. We’ve been working with Sumitomo Electric for the last two years. They’ve been an incredibly helpful partner, and we try to go back to them for as many research opportunities as possible. NREL was pulled into the project to do research on flow batteries, which led to this very interesting relationship between NREL, the utility, and the battery manufacturer. The way we are doing research with our partners is phenomenal. Everything we work on with them is new; we are learning and pushing the barrier of our knowledge of what a battery can actually do. This collaboration has been extremely successful, and we have already published seven peer-reviewed publications from this project.   

When it comes to supporting utilities, this project has helped us work with utilities very closely. We are now able to better understand the inner workings of utilities than ever before. Now we know how utilities look at batteries and the real questions that they want answered. At the bare minimum, this project’s objective should be about helping others. We’re looking at the ways we are trying to answer these questions and solve everyday problems because we want to make sure the battery is operating at its maximum potential.

Tell me more about your work with PRECISE and what the tool is trying to achieve.

We’ve partnered with the Sacramento Municipality District (SMUD) on PRECISE, and SMUD has been amazing. Everything started with NREL’s involvement with standards creation. Recently, there was this big industry change that happened with advanced inverters. In California, every inverter that now gets installed is an advanced inverter. This essentially means every inverter can take care of itself and provide support as it operates. While this industry change was happening, SMUD was getting a few hundred applications a month. SMUD ended up approaching NREL about figuring out how to preconfigure inverters even before PV gets installed. What if we could leave no room for error, confusion, or even a need for a quality check because everything would be already done? We started working on that idea at NREL. After a year, we got the PRECISE advanced inverter planning tool up and running. Further recognizing the success and potential of this project, this year PRECISE is going to be an R&D 100 selection application from NREL. PRECISE has been my brainchild; I’ve been working on this project for almost two years. The initial version of PRECISE that we have works only with rooftop solar, so we are now attempting to do a second phase for PRECISE that involves doing solar-plus-storage configurations.