Batteries, Renewables

NREL: Energy Systems Integration is Bigger than ‘Just’ Renewables

Issue 5 and Volume 118.

Bryan Hannegan   By Bryan Hannegan, Associate Laboratory Director for Energy Systems Integration, NREL

It sounds like something out of a movie, but it is fiction no more. Today’s progressive energy consumers drive electric vehicles, which plug into their solar powered homes. Before getting home, the driver can look at her smart phone to see if the air conditioner is running, or if the washing machine kicked on once the rooftop solar system started creating clean energy for the day.

The Energy Department’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is spearheading innovation in Energy Systems Integration (ESI) research and has a new facility to help speed to market the tools needed for the next energy revolution.

Recently given the prestigious honor of Laboratory of the Year by R&D Magazine, the new Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) is an 182,500-square-foot DOE User Facility that will prepare the energy system of today to upload and download energy for vehicles, optimize storage devices, seamlessly load renewables onto the electricity grid, and add control strategies for power electronics.

Over the past decade, investments in clean energy research and development and incentives for commercial deployment have spurred a dramatic increase in the performance and cost-effectiveness of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The deployment of these technologies is changing the energy landscape towards a more sustainable future.

Instead of a one-way delivery of electricity generated by fossil fuels making steam to turn turbines at the local utility, this new era is about integration of energy – from coal and wind, natural gas and solar, biofuels and geothermal, lithium ion batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

ESIF offers utility executives and other decision-makers a place to research new technologies in a place that is friendly to exploration. ESIF will allow utility companies and investors the ability to “touch the science” and see it working in real time and on a large scale.

Building a smarter, more resilient energy system poses both challenge and opportunity. NREL is excited to be leading a world-wide conversation on how these new integrations of energy will change the way we generate, deliver and use energy. While we can’t anticipate the nearly infinite number of combinations of technologies, data and devices that will interact in an integrated energy system, we do know that ESI is much broader than just building a smarter grid. By focusing on the optimization of our entire energy system, new ESI can increase efficiency, reliability and performance, while reducing costs and minimizing environmental impacts.

Looking ahead, we see ESI research examining the following interconnected and evolving elements of our energy system:

  • A layer of physical energy devices that produce, consume, store or transport energy, such as high voltage wires, a wind turbine or even a refrigerator motor or a dishwasher.
  • An electromechanical, electronic or software-based local controls layer necessary to allow these physical devices to respond to external signals in an optimized way.
  • A communications layer, consisting of secure and private information and computation platforms necessary to support control applications at the system level.
  • A layer of systems controls, ensuring the reliability of the physical devices interconnected to hosting infrastructures. This could include monitoring and energy network security assessment.
  • A dynamic market layer, responsible for addressing economic, optimization, regulatory, financial, and policy aspects of the energy system and its environment.

ESI is about tapping into the combined strength of these systems and squeezing more efficiency out of every electron and every device, boosting performance while reducing costs, all while minimizing environmental impacts.

Add to all of this the wrinkle of climate change, where global temperatures are rising, droughts are more devastating, and hurricanes batter coastal cities with greater force — so much so that once-a-century storms are becoming once-a-decade storms. This environmental change is also threatening our energy infrastructure, knocking down transmission lines, sapping the capacity of hydropower, stretching electricity generation capacity on hot summer days.

America’s aging energy infrastructure must keep pace not only with the changes in energy supply, but with climate change and security.

But, the challenge is achievable because America leads the world in energy innovation. A focus on ESI is imperative to America’s response to its aging infrastructure, climate change, security, and changes in energy supply. The response must be multi-pronged, combining protections, smarter technologies, and energy efficiency. ESI is just the tool to help America achieve success.

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