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NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility

The Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) will be the first laboratory in the world to enable smart grid equipment to be tested on a plug-and-play basis at megawatt levels. Newly invented equipment will be evaluated for compatibility with existing and future technology, and for robustness under varied operating conditions. A high-performance computer will allow for simulations and a SCADA system will monitor and control facility-based processes and gather and disseminate real time data for collaboration and visualization.

Imagine you have a novel grid-scale energy storage device, well suited to save energy generated by solar panels or wind turbines so that consumers can count on steady electricity supplies regardless of weather conditions. How do you convince utilities and energy companies that your energy storage device can really get the job done, without it creating unexpected problems for numerous other devices connected to the grid?

At the end of this year, energy innovators seeking confirmation of their work will be able to take their devices to the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), which is being built at a cost of $135 million at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, Colorado. The 17,000 square meter (182,500 square foot) facility will house a research staff of approximately 200, a variety of specialized labs, loading docks and bays for equipment to be evaluated, a high performance computer that will be used mainly for simulation tests, and a SCADA system to emulate the control and data acquisition systems that are standard in full-scale grids.

Besides being the foremost U.S. research facility for renewable energy technologies, NREL is recognized worldwide as the place to go for validation of technologies, such as the efficiency of photovoltaic materials. Because of this reputation, it is well situated to serve as home to a facility that will test and validate technical means of integrating renewable energy sources with the grid and smart grid technologies generally.

It is high time for such a facility to become available. Over the past four years, the electric power industry has been afforded substantial and unprecedented opportunities to develop techniques of deploying renewable energy, thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy's Renewable and Distributed Systems Integration Projects (2008) and the Smart Grid Investment Grants and Demonstration Projects (2009). Because of these, and other projects supported by ARPA-E or venture capital, applications and ideas are emerging that are in urgent need of further research, development and testing.

Without prompt validation by a neutral party, adoption of promising new technologies by utilities and integration companies can be unnecessarily slow. When completed at the end of this year, the ESIF will be available to provide such validation and to test new technologies for decades to come.

ESIF will be the first laboratory in the world to enable equipment to be tested on a plug-and-play basis at megawatt levels. A standard interface developed at NREL, the Research Electrical Distribution Bus (REDB), will function as the ultimate power integration "circuit" capable of utilizing multiple AC and DC buses that interconnect laboratories and experiments within the ESIF to test and simulate equipment.

In the SCADA control room, researchers will be able to see the electrical bus, close switches and automatically connect to grid simulators and load banks. Research partners will be able to control the systems on portions of the REDB checked out specifically to them and their experiments. The data from the experiment is streamed to secure servers, so if a utility is working with the lab that information can remain with the researcher and partner: Information is easily compartmentalized so that an experiment has its own power system and data.

In a typical scenario, a research partner delivers an experimental device to ESIF on a flatbed truck. The truck enters the ESIF through large overhead doors that lead into the high bay area of the Power Systems Integration Laboratory where a bridge crane lifts the experiment, which contains a battery in a one-meter (40 foot) container, off the truck and places it in the lab. The battery is connected to DC power with a programmable switch that is connected to the REDB. Running parallel with the REDB is the SCADA system, which enables the researchers safely to turn power on and off, and track the data flowing during the experiment. Researchers will be able to charge and discharge the battery using ESIF's power hardware-in-the-loop, or, for example, interconnect the battery to a transformer that feeds power from a solar array in an outdoor testing facility. (The outdoor area will allow for testing either at 480 Volts or 13.2 kiloVolts.)

The battery might equally be connected to simulated devices or larger energy systems and tested under varied hypothetical operating conditions. ESIF's high performance computing center, initially at a half-petaflop scale but eventually petaflop scale, will be the fastest such facility dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies in the world. It also will be exceptionally energy-efficient in its own right, operating at a power usage effectiveness rating of 1.06 or better.

Throughout the lab, energy consumption will be economized by means of waste heat capture and recyling, natural ventilation through operable windows, under-floor air distribution, evaporative central cooling, high-efficiency lighting and use of Energy-Star equipment.

Specialized laboratories will include Power Systems Integration, Smart Power, Energy Storage, Electrical Characterization, Energy Systems Integration, Thermal Storage Process & Components, Thermal Storage Materials, Optical Characterization, Energy Systems Fabrication, Manufacturing, Materials Characterization, Electrochemical Characterization, Energy Systems Sensor, Fuel Cell Development and Test, and Energy Systems High Pressure Test.

To visualize the lab's potential impact, recall the situation when equipment based on microcontrollers became available for substations 15 or 20 years ago. Despite the obvious advantages of such equipment, many utilities were reluctant to replace electro-mechanical switching, which after all had served them well for almost a hundred years. Now market penetration of microcontroller equipment is well advanced, but imagine how much faster this transition could have occurred, if the capabilities and durability of the new equipment had been testable at the outset by a neutral party like NREL's ESIF. As deployments of renewable and distributed generation and storage, smart grid applications, and energy efficiency technologies continue, ESIF can play a vital role for increasing the speed and scale of these technologies into the power system.


  • Benjamin KroposkiBenjamin Kroposki is Director of Energy Systems Integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech and his Ph.D. in engineering systems from Colorado School of Mines. His expertise is in the design and testing of renewable and distributed power systems with a focus on photovoltaic systems and grid integration. An IEEE senior member, he served as chairman of the IEEE 1547.4 standards group for distributed resource integration and secretary of the IEEE 1547.1 distributed energy conformance testing group.

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  • Jim ReillyJim Reilly is a consultant working on projects related to the integration of renewable energy into the distribution system, microgrids and related standards. He has facilitated use cases related to distributed control systems for microgrids that include wind, solar, fuel cells, gas generators and multiple storage technologies. Recently, he has worked closely with the Japanese New Energy and Industrial Development Organization on standards related to demonstration projects in New Mexico and Hawaii. A member of the IEEE Power Engineering Society he is a graduate of Georgetown University (B.S.) and Columbia University (M.B.A.).

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About the Smart Grid Newsletter

A monthly publication, the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter features practical and timely technical information and forward-looking commentary on smart grid developments and deployments around the world. Designed to foster greater understanding and collaboration between diverse stakeholders, the newsletter brings together experts, thought-leaders, and decision-makers to exchange information and discuss issues affecting the evolution of the smart grid.


Ben KroposkiBen Kroposki is Director of Energy Systems Integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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Jim ReillyJim Reilly is a consultant working on projects related to integration of renewable energy into the distribution system...
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Janet RovedaJanet Roveda, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona and IEEE senior member...
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Susan LyseckySusan Lysecky is an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Arizona...
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Young-Jun SonYoung-Jun Son is Director of the Advanced Integration of Manufacturing Systems and Technologies Program...
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Sioe T. MakSioe T. Mak, an IEEE life fellow, is an associate consultant with ESTA International, LLC...
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Shawkat AliShawkat Ali, a senior member of IEEE, is with the School of Information and Communication Technology, CQ University...
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