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New DOE Lab Spearheads Research in Renewable Energy Technology

Oct 09, 2013

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The U.S.  Energy Department (DOE) has endeavored during the past few years to build massive, inter-linked research laboratories where scientists, engineers, and others involved in the field can brainstorm ideas and experiments.

The newest and perhaps largest of these "mega-complexes" is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) in Golden, Colo.

The facility opened last year and will eventually house 19 laboratories, divided into four categories:

  1. Electricity Laboratories, dedicated to power systems integration, smart power, energy storage, electrical characterization, and energy systems integration.
  2. Thermal Laboratories, dedicated to thermal systems, thermal storage materials, and optical characterization.
  3. Fuel Laboratories, dedicated to energy systems fabrication, manufacturing, materials characterization, electrochemicals, energy systems sensor, fuel cell development, and high-pressure testing.
  4. Data, Analysis and Visualization,  which includes labs for the ESIF Control Room, the visualization room, the National Fuel Cell Technology Evaluation Center, and high-performance computing.

Part of a vehicle electrification project at the new NFCTEC lab at the Energy Systems Integration Facility in Colorado. Credit: Part of a vehicle electrification project at the new NFCTEC lab at the Energy Systems Integration Facility in Colorado. Credit:

The $135 million facility will play a key role in helping regional utilities design resilient microgrids that will restore power almost immediately to communities bathed in darkness when storms such as Hurricane Sandy hit, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said.

There have already been many corporate research partnerships announced in conjunction with ESIF's start-up. In one, the NREL will work with the Energy Department and Toyota North America to explore ways to integrate electric vehicles into the power grid. Scientists and engineers at the ESIF and the NREL's Vehicle Testing and Integration Facility will use 20 Prius hybrid electric vehicles in their research.

NREL is also working with the U.S. Army to develop a power system composed of solar energy, battery power, and generators that can provide electricity to forward operating military bases.

In one particularly significant project, the National Fuel Cell Technology Evaluation Center (NFCTEC) will play a "crucial role in NREL's independent, third-party analysis of hydrogen fuel cell technologies in real world operation," NREL said.

The NFCTEC is designed for secure management, storage and processing of proprietary data from industry. Access to the off-network NFCTEC is limited to NREL's Technology Validation Team, which analyzes detailed data and reports on fuel cell technology status, progress, and technical challenges.

"It's more than just a data center," said Jennifer Kurtz, the hydrogen analysis group manager for NFCTEC. "We're reporting on the technology status, and progress and performance, of so many different projects going on at ESIF."

Kurtz said the designation of NFCTEC as a "national resource" was vital.

"In part to make the resource available to other industry partners, so that we can continue doing third party proprietary analysis," she said. "Specifically asking questions like if the solutions going to be applicable to real-world situations."

In third party analysis, Kurtz explained, NFCTEC can do research for outside companies without revealing the data to anyone else, and can publish the durability status, and how the project is moving toward the durability targets of the different applications.

For example, NFCTEC began operations a year ago with analysis of fuel cell vehicles and buses, and is now studying forklifts and backup power.

"Some of those early markets are relatively new, but we're looking at stationary fuel cell systems, and then the infrastructure required for those different systems," Kurtz said. "Let's say you have a forklift that is in operation in an in-user facility, and it's operating in a six-hour shift, and while it's operating, it's collecting data.

"We take that data, store it, and analyze on how it's performing, looking at things like how often is the hydrogen infrastructure being maintained."

NFCTEC performs analysis on both lab and real-world applications, Kurtz said.

"One of the unique pieces about this (ESIF) facility is that the labs are not isolated," Kurtz added. "The labs can communicate back and forth."

As for the future of NFCTEC's fuel cell technology testing, Kurtz alluded to new projects on hydrogen structure analysis of fuel cell vehicles, and within the infrastructure, studying the cost of hydrogen and the status of getting hydrogen from a dispenser when a vehicle user needs it.

Inside one of the Electricity Labs near the NFCTEC facility, a Colorado-based company which has contracted with ESIF is working on a potential energy breakthrough. The company, Advanced Energy, is testing its 1 MW solar-inverter.

An inverter transforms the variable direct current from solar panels into an alternating current that can be put on the grid. At ESIF, the inverter is being tested for utility-scale and commercial arrays, projects 200 times the size of a home-system inverter.

Mike Dooley, the VP of marketing for Advanced Energy, said the advantage to conducting tests at the new ESIF facility is being able to replicate problems on a full-scale replica grid.

"It's very hard to simulate a grid, but essentially they've built a facility where you have a lot of simulations of what a grid would be, and what could happen," Dooley said. "To see how the inverter can add stability to the grid itself, and how quick the response needs to be, in quick situations, and how you can minimize problems, is huge.

"You can do a much broader range of tests with this. There's no other facility like it.  Major utilities don't want you experimenting on their grid; they're afraid of grid instability. So getting to test on this is a very big deal for us."

On the vast majority of solar installations, inverters are necessary, as  solar panels generate a DC current, and you need to move that to an AC current before you can put the energy on a grid.

Dooley predicts that research at the new ESIF facility will spur innovation.

"You can simulate things in a week that would take years on an actual grid," he said. "Here you can 'force' things to happen that would maybe occur one time in 10 years on a utility grid."