NREL Work With Defense Department’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program Accelerates Priority DOD Energy Projects

May 26, 2022 | By Josh Rasmussen | Contact media relations

In 1995, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) senior research advisor Jeffrey Marqusee became the first director of a brand-new Department of Defense (DOD) program—the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP). At that time, the purely environmental program addressed a host of environmental issues from pollution prevention in the manufacturing and maintenance of weapons systems, clean-up of hazardous waste on military bases, to managing natural resources.

Now, almost 30 years later, energy has entered the picture and the program is working to identify and demonstrate the most promising, innovative, and cost-effective technologies and methods that address DOD’s highest-priority environmental requirements. Under Marqusee, climate change impacts were added to the program in 2008.

“The program addresses the barriers for technological innovation that exist between the lab and deployment,” Marqusee said. “Its job is to facilitate demonstrations in operational environments so everyone involved in the decision for deployment can get the information they need.”

Today, ESTCP is part of a joint office, partnered with the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). The way it works, Marqusee said, who was running both programs when he left DOD, is SERDP conducts the research and ESTCP takes it and demonstrates it.

NREL in the Mix

ESTCP is still demonstrating energy projects, selecting them through annual solicitations made to the private sector and government laboratories. The idea, Marqusee said, is that whichever team is the best to run a demonstration is selected. A committee makes the selections, and NREL researchers help make those calls. Actually, NREL is involved on both ends, submitting projects for selection as well as serving on the review committee. However, as one would expect, NREL personnel who support the reviews are distinct from the those who submit proposals and recuse themselves from commenting on NREL projects.

Brian Miller is ESTCP’s technical lead at NREL for microgrid demonstrations. He explained why ESTCP’s role is so important, by outlining the proverbial “Technology Valley of Death.”

“There are early research-level projects (low technology readiness level) and commercialized, business-ready projects (high technology readiness level), but there’s a gap between them,” Miller said. “ESTCP fills that gap perfectly. It funds early demonstration projects of new technologies. Specifically, ESTCP is chartered to find technologies, such as these, and run demonstration projects to prove success.”

Furthermore, Miller said, ESTCP is willing to try out new things. By making these projects nonproprietary and publicly releasable—adding outreach effort requirements to contracts—the program can show off the technologies to the world through success stories and motivate risk-averse utilities and military bases to adopt the projects themselves. Miller said there are not many others that do that. ESTCP wants to be an accelerant—lighter fluid on a campfire.

NREL did very well last year submitting proposals, Marqusee, who sits on the review committee, said, reiterating that the process is purely competitive and NREL has no inside track. NREL is starting a record number of new projects that were won competitively. In the past, some of NREL’s bigger DOD projects have benefitted from ESTCP demonstrations, including work on the Pacific Missile Range Facility, much of the work supporting projects at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, and other microgrid and large-scale battery storage projects for the military.

“Microgrids, for example, was just a term 12 years ago, but nobody was deploying them,” Marqusee said. “Then NREL, and labs like NREL, helped mature the technology, and NREL helped deploy them. ESTCP’s and NREL’s effort helped a lot to mature this technology. Now, as a result, the funding bucket DOD uses to deploy these technologies is skyrocketing.”

DOD spends $4 billion every year on energy, with the primary driver being the ability to maintain the mission, Marqusee said. This year, he said, all of ESTCP, which is much more than just energy, is $123 million, with energy on the order of $30–$40 million of the total.

How It Works

When a project is selected, NREL can receive funds in one of two ways. If it is a project where NREL is the lead or a partner of the developer, NREL receives the requested funding and completes the task it proposed. If it is not an NREL project, but one where NREL can support the demonstration by conducting tests on its Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) platform, NREL works with the developer to plan and conduct a risk-reduction demonstration prior to a potential future field test at a DOD installation.

Two researchers in front of a visualization projected on a wall.
NREL cybersecurity researchers demonstrate the visualization capabilities of the ARIES cyber range. The cyber range is an advanced simulation environment that combines all requirements for achieving utility-scale system, network, and application security research. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

The phases change project to project, but generally follow the same flow. Miller noted the process used to be more simulation, then straight to field demonstration, but Marqusee has been instrumental in helping integrate hardware-in-the-loop tests between those two.

For the project Miller is working on right now, “NREL Helps U.S. Department of Defense Power Military Bases with Large-Scale Energy Storage and Microgrids,” he set up an ARIES environment in NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) as a hardware-in-the-loop test bed.

“For each participant, I set up the scenario ESTCP mandated—a certain power profile that these industry companies were told to go and change, and they did,” he said. “Five were selected to move forward and demonstrate in hardware. So, NREL and ESIF set up the hardware test bed to prove what they simulated in phase 1 actually works. When we set it up in hardware with an actual critical load, its performance becomes immediately evident. The industry companies greatly benefit from the challenging tests, their products improve, and customers everywhere reap these rewards.”

Why NREL?

“One of the reasons I’ve always thought NREL and ESTCP were such a natural match,” Marqusee said, “is ESTCP is very much focused on that gap between research and deployment, and it works both ways. It removes risk and addresses the uncertainty of economics. NREL looks to the future of deployment, understanding what the options are and pulling new technologies forward into demonstrations. For a company interested in seeing new technologies have an impact instead of just seeing a paper about it, NREL is the place.”

Miller added NREL’s unique combination of world-class facilities, powerful capabilities, and subject matter experts are hard to find elsewhere.

Learn more about NREL’s Department of Defense work.