Supercomputers take the US electric grid to the next level

Colorado laboratory is helping scientists to figure out how to incorporate renewable technology into the US electric grid

The new facility will help the grid to cope with the variability of renewable power sources, such as wind and solar

By Sophie Yeo

A new laboratory is helping scientists paint a picture of how America’s electricity grid will look in the future.

The $135 million Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), launched in June, is helping the US prepare for a time when much of its power will be sourced from renewables.

Using powerful petaflop computers, scientists are able to develop distributed energy systems, and test how they would integrate into the electric grid at a scale that they would encounter in the real world.

While the facility is still in the early stages, it is already helping scientists to develop renewable technology. One such example of this is a device that will improve the reliability of solar panels, so that they continue to generate power consistently, even in cloudy conditions.

It is also working with the Department of Defense to help them become more self-sufficient, which will improve their energy security.

“We have several partnerships with the Department of Defense really looking at energy security for base applications,” Carolyn Elam, the manager of ESIF, told RTCC.

“They’re looking at how they can stay online during power outages, how they can reduce their overall energy utilisation by deploying renewables onto their bases, and then also looking at operating bases from a reliability and generation standpoint.”

Having a facility which allows researchers to test this kind of technology at a meaningful scale allows a smoother transition of renewables onto the grid. This reduces the risk involved of going to the market with the product.

The ESIF is the first facility in the US that allows this kind of research to take place at a megawatt scale, meaning the research provides a real time model of how the technology will interact with the electrical grid when functioning at full power.

“We can model it, but this includes experimentation as well,” says George Douglas, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which set up and runs the facility. He told RTCC, “You can take devices and hook them in. It’s a unit that shows them that these things can work at a scale that’s large enough to be meaningful to them.”

America’s potential for renewable energy, he says, points to a need for the capabilities of the ESIF laboratories.

Research conducted by NREL while the facilities were being built suggested that it was technically feasible for the US to be run on 80% renewably sourced electricity by 2050 – but, says Douglas, “I want to emphasise the qualifier that it’s technically possible. It would take a lot of money and political will to make that happen, but technically, the technology exists to get 80% of our energy from renewable energy in 20 years’ time.”

Incorporating renewables

Providing cleaner energy is a target which has its own challenges in terms of transmission as well as generation, and these are the issues which ESIF seeks to resolve. Its production cannot be controlled so easily as fossil fuel power stations; its sources are not so reliable, and, unhelpfully, they do not always correspond to periods of high power demand.

“There’s variability,” says Douglas. “The sun doesn’t shine at night, for example, and the wind doesn’t always blow, so how do you make these variable generators go well with the grid?”

Scientists from a number of organisations are trying to figure it out. The laboratory, a 182,500 ft2 facility in Golden, Colorado, is a flexible working space that welcomes researchers from various organisations to come in and use the space.

It is a resource that will prove valuable to groups such as government agencies, universities, utilities and manufacturers of distributed generation system components.

To make the facility as useful as possible, open source data about the historical availability of power resources such as wind and sunlight are provided as part of the service, allowing developers to base their projections upon the past. Data collected by those who use the facility is, where possible, added to the collection.

“We tend to strive towards open source data where possible,” says Elam.

“We’re looking to make this facility benefit the public and community as a whole, and that means really trying to leverage the testing or systems development we do, and publishing as much of that information as we can.

“Obviously some of the partners that might work with us will have proprietary information about their system that we won’t be able to publish, but overall our goal is to publish and advance the technology more broadly as open information.”

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