Modernizing Our Energy Systems Will Help Us Engage the Future

By Johney Green and Juan Torres, Associate Laboratory Directors at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

If you take a peek into the not-too-distant future of a city such as San Francisco, you may be startled to see millions and millions of smart devices using, storing, and generating electricity simultaneously.

How is that different from the system we have used?

Under the old way the electric power grid was set up, huge centralized generators sent electricity in one direction to consumers. At home, you would flip a light switch, turn on a stereo, or use a mixer. Those days are gone.

In today’s reality, the grid is rapidly transforming into a two-way system with many variables. Some homes are equipped with solar panels that generate electricity. At the same time, we are becoming accustomed to “smart” home devices that adjust their electrical needs based on different variables — for example, running when electrons are cheaper or powering down according to efficiency programming. And increasingly, we are buying electric vehicles and adding battery storage that also interface with the grid.

But how do we reduce the risk of operating, say, 10 million or more of these devices at once in a place such as the Bay Area or other large metropolitan regions?

To answer that, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is dedicating resources to research that will reimagine a new energy system. Our 10-year vision for NREL includes Integrated Energy Pathways as one of the laboratory’s three key research areas. For Integrated Energy Pathways, we concentrate on research that maximizes and leverages the value of existing power systems while integrating renewables, building and industrial loads, energy storage, and transportation.

Our plan over the next decade is to conduct research that addresses challenges in three areas:

· Generation, Storage, and Integration, which focuses on advanced storage and renewable energy generation, innovative integration and controls, and multi-scale physics and analytic-based modeling

· System Security and Resilience, which covers cyber-physical systems security innovation, energy resiliency science and analytics, and security and resilience visualization capability

· Advanced Mobility, which explores transportation systems and medium- and heavy-duty transportation electrification (battery, fuel cell, and hybrid electric vehicles); advanced analytics, data science, and “digital twinning”; advanced bioenergy technology development; and charging/hydrogen fueling infrastructure/behind-the-meter energy storage.

So, how do we get there?

At NREL, those types of research have been our core since our inception more than 40 years ago. But to keep pace with this expanding universe of options, we have launched several initiatives and are getting great outcomes.

One example is a capability we call the “Cyber-Energy Emulation Platform” (CEEP). Housed in our Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) that is home to our 8.0 petaflops high-performance computer, Eagle, CEEP has made it possible to visualize energy systems in unprecedented ways to better predict and defend against attacks. It will be a key research tool for the laboratory going forward and will support large-scale cyber experimentation. Tools like CEEP will help make our electric grid more secure and resilient, whether the threat is a cyberattack or a superstorm.

Another way we will be navigating the new energy frontier is through our Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) research platform. ARIES aims to de-risk, optimize, and secure current energy systems and provide insight into the design and operation of future energy systems. No research platform at this scale exists anywhere in the world. It will address the fundamental challenges of the variability in the physical size of new energy technologies being added to energy systems; controlling large numbers (millions to tens of millions) of interconnected devices; and integrating multiple diverse technologies that have not previously worked together.

ARIES evolved from brainstorming efforts among a team of experts across multiple specialty areas at NREL and the Department of Energy (DOE) in 2018, into an integrated platform that spans NREL and would leverage research assets at other national laboratories and other research facilities. The core ARIES platform connects NREL’s ESIF capabilities with a new Integrated Energy Systems at Scale (IESS) infrastructure at our Flatirons Campus. Research at the ESIF can go up to 2 MW, which covers customer-level and distribution-size experiments. IESS will allow for research at the 20-MW scale and beyond, representing the interface between the distribution and bulk power levels. That capability is further enhanced with an exciting new virtual emulation environment that allows us to scale our research to systems comprising millions of devices, just like the Bay Area scenario.

The unprecedented research network those technologies enable will make it possible to explore breakthrough solutions for optimizing the integration of renewables, buildings, industry, energy storage, and transportation. We are endeavoring to overcome the challenges, in tandem with other U.S. DOE national laboratories, academia, and industry partners. So far, we have made significant headway. Together, our advanced capabilities will allow us to bridge the shifting landscape as the electrical grid evolves.

The future is upon us, and we intend to embrace and extend the possibilities of advanced energy technologies — helping reinvent an outmoded grid by exploring Integrated Energy Pathways.

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