Integration lab designed to smooth modernization

NREL pursues systems integration

Phil Carson | Jul 18, 2012


Success in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's traditional objective—to develop technology for commercialization—has led to at least two new initiatives, both apparent in recent visits I've made to the facility in Golden, Colo., near my home.

One is the near-completion of the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), which is a megawatt-scale systems integration facility for research and development. The other is the Cleantech Fellows Institute, which connects new technology with successful entrepreneurs to translate ideas in economic development. 

First, the ESIF. According to Ben Kroposki, NREL's director of energy systems integration, the national lab's primary customer, the U.S. Department of Energy, recognized five years ago that the lab had succeeded in its traditional mission: to develop technology to the level of commercialization. Wind energy became a viable means to produce electricity at or near "grid parity"—that is, equivalent to the cost of fossil fuel generation. 

Success in that endeavor and the states' embrace of renewable portfolio standards meant that the next challenge would be around integration of new technologies on the grid. At a cost of $135 million—a fraction of the cost of grid modernization estimates for the nation's utilities over the coming decade, which may approach $100 billion—NREL has built the ESIF.

The new facility will allow utilities (and vendors) to test actual hardware and software and evaluate whether they can be integrated safely, reliably and cost effectively. You'll recognize that this hardware and software are the components of the so-called smart grid, whether that's wind power, solar photo-voltaics, electro-chemical or thermal storage, fuel cells, et al. 

A super-computer at ESIF can apply the hardware or software being tested to models of a client utility's grid or just a circuit, and produce visualizations of the system's behavior that can guide implementation. The data collected will be mined for insights into component and system behavior. 

NREL's energy systems integration effort has already partnered with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to enable SMUD to create a microgrid for its headquarters and it is working with the Department of Defense to do the same for military bases. 

The ESIF will allow testing on the cheap, essentially, by providing an environment where the configurations of and conditions affecting various utilities can be accurately simulated. Thus, a battery maker could plug its product in at ESIF and two disparate utilities could learn how that battery would behave on their grids, without the cost and time involved in in situ testing. 

The technology and financial aspects of the project are too complex to easily convey in this space, but I'd urge utility and vendor readers to follow the links in this article to learn more. 

The other ongoing effort that caught my attention is the Cleantech Fellows Institute, which I discussed with Bill Farris, NREL's vice president for commercialization and technology transfer, and Chris Shapard, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association. The Institute is a partnership between those two groups, three Colorado schools (University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Mines) and national technology sponsors and venture capitalist firms. 

Because NREL regularly gets requests from venture capitalists for ideas worth investing in, as well as from entrepreneurs looking for ideas and capital, the lab's "convening power" made it the right party to join the various pieces, Farris told me. 

So the Institute will recruit entrepreneurs with a successful track record and interest in taking on a new challenge, provide a curriculum that gives them grounding in commercializing clean energy hardware, software and processes, provide resources from local universities and Colorado's clean energy community and give them access to venture capital. The program is designed to translate findings in the lab into economic development projects via capitalized entrepreneurs. 

Granted this is a general overview of two programs at NREL with many nuances and a zillion relevant details, captured largely by memory. But both are worthy efforts in their own way.

In the case of ESIF, it appears that for a fraction of one percent of the nation's cost for grid modernization, a lot of guesswork, errors and stranded assets can be avoided. For vendors NREL provides their customers with a degree of comfort that integration issues can be identified and addressed. That's economic development, if it helps high-tech startups establish themselves. 

Otherwise, 3,000 utilities, at great expense, could be casting about in the dark. And so might their customers. That's you and me. I'd call that a bargain. 

And the timing here is excellent. Americans need to be reminded right now that we do indeed get great things done, that you don't get something for nothing and that public-private partnerships in the right areas pay dividends. What a relief from the noise from those who would paralyze progress for our nation based on greed, self-interest or a misplaced ideology. 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily



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