Explore Colorado’s Artificial Oceans and Rivers—in Three Dimensions

Some Are Two Stories Tall; Others Come In Tanks; All Are Guiding Water Power To Commercial Success

July 27, 2022 | By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy | Contact media relations

Colorado is not known for its oceans, which makes sense—it does not have any.

Even so, at the landlocked National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, one group of experts is obsessed with water, especially rushing river currents, rolling tides, and powerful ocean waves. They have good reason to be obsessed; there is enough energy coursing through U.S. rivers and oceans to meet up to 60% of the country’s electricity needs. Now, all that is needed is cost-effective technology to harness as much of that power as possible—and NREL’s experts and partners rely on the laboratory’s ocean-mimicking tools to build these water-bound, clean energy devices faster, better—and in the middle of a desert.

How do they do it? With dynamometers and wave tanks and NREL’s world-class laboratory facilities, of course. Watch how NREL simulates rivers and oceans (and much more) to help accelerate the development of cost-effective and durable hydropower and marine energy technologies.

Making Waves

The laboratory’s wettest ocean imitator is its wave tank. In the limo-sized tank, early-stage marine energy prototypes get a chance to demonstrate how well they might handle all kinds of waves—even extreme waves that crash down with powerful force. And, to get even more extreme, designers can head over to the structural validation stand, which can mimic powerful ocean and river conditions (without even one drop of water). Take a virtual tour of the wave tank.

Getting the Biggest Bang for Your Blade

When the biggest prototypes—like wave energy devices or offshore wind turbines—are all grown up, full scale, and just about ready to head into the real world, one tool can help confirm these big machines are good to go. The 5-megawatt dynamometer is the laboratory’s largest and can evaluate how well powertrains and power-take-off systems (which transform energy into electricity) might withstand forceful winds and waves. Take virtual a tour of the dynamometer.

Mimicking a Microgrid

In the laboratory’s distributed integrated energy laboratory, researchers can simulate how hydropower facilities, wave energy devices, solar panels, and energy storage systems could work together once connected to a microgrid. With these low-risk, low-cost simulations, researchers and developers can design reliable microgrids to serve a clean energy future. Meanwhile, researchers can take their micro- and midsized technologies for a spin on one of several dynamometers. With help from NREL’s expert, users can, like Goldilocks, choose which machine—5-kilowatt, 225-kilowatt, 2.5-megawatt, or 5-megawatt dynamometer—best meets their needs. Take a virtual tour of the distributed integrated energy lab.

Matchmaking for the Power Grid

Future power grids will depend on complex partnerships between marine energy devices, hydropower facilities, wind turbines, energy storage systems—like pumped storage hydropower—and more. The laboratory’s controllable grid interface makes it easy to simulate how well up to 7 megawatts’ worth of hybrid systems might function together on a real-life grid (with new equipment arriving soon, that 7 megawatts will grow to 20 megawatts). Researchers can also study how and when to send hydropower’s on-demand electricity to the grid, which could help hydropower plants plan retrofits or upgrades and reduce the time, cost, and risk to get new hydro-based hybrid technologies up and running. Take a tour of the interface.

Modernizing a Complex Grid

Today’s power grid is changing—and fast. To make sure this future energy system is safe, secure, resilient, affordable, reliable, and clean, researchers need a research platform to evaluate what this future grid might look like. At NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility and Flatirons Campus, researchers can access a system to do exactly that.

With NREL’s Advanced Research on Integration Energy Systems (also known as ARIES), grid experts can analyze how complex webs of up to 20 megawatts of renewable energy technologies could come together to create sustainable, reliable power systems. With ARIES’s virtual simulations, for example, researchers could see if adding hydrogen to an existing hydropower facility—a move that could provide electricity for the country’s increasing number of electric vehicles—would be a worthwhile investment. Take a virtual tour of ARIES.

Building Sound Structures

Between 1990 and 2020, NREL researchers evaluated the structural properties of more than 150 wind turbine blades, plus many components designed for marine energy devices. In the structural validation laboratories, researchers can recreate extreme in-water conditions and forces to make sure new materials, structures, and devices can handle any and all ocean and river environments. Take a tour of the structural validation labs.

Riding the Waves

To mimic oceans and rivers, it is critical to have solid field data. The laboratory’s water power instrumentation lab is home to two valuable tools that can collect, store, and share data from out in the field. Wave measurement buoys amass real-world data on waves, currents, water temperatures, and more; and customizable modular ocean data acquisition systems can monitor both environmental conditions and how devices perform out in the water. Take a virtual tour of the instrumentation lab.

NREL’s menagerie of facilities, instruments, and equipment stand ready to help prepare the next generation of clean energy technologies for the power grid. And do not forget: It is the experts behind the labs—NREL’s deeply knowledgeable researchers and technicians—who are the true water power masters. Even way out in the high-desert plains of Colorado, they know what it takes to get marine energy devices into the water. Partner with NREL’s experts today!

Partner with NREL! Access expert advice and equipment to accelerate the development of your clean energy technology.

Subscribe to the NREL water power newsletter, The Current, to make sure you do not miss a marine energy or hydropower update.