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Integrating Complexity

The existing U.S. power system has served us well, but some events and trends in the past couple of decades have exposed weak points in the system.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the utility sector embraces ever-increasing amounts of distributed generation, including renewables, effective integration of those diverse assets becomes paramount. Martha Symko-Davies, of NREL, will explore these challenges and solutions to them at the upcoming Empowering Customers & Cities conference in Chicago November 4-6.

The existing U.S. power system has served us well, but some events and trends in the past couple of decades have exposed weak points in the system: the Northeast blackout of 2003, which affected 55 million people in the United States and Canada; Hurricane Sandy, which also left millions in the dark; and the growing penetration of distributed generation, which under certain circumstances can tax the operating limits of distribution lines.

December 22, 2014 - Dr. Martha Symko-Davies, NREL's business development manager. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Martha Symko-Davies // NREL

And while utilities sometimes struggle just to keep the lights on, modern electronics and 24/7 computer systems demand a power supply that meets stricter operating parameters with much higher reliability.

In short, our 21st century economy needs a 21st century grid. The future grid must deliver reliable, affordable, and clean electricity to consumers where they want it and how they want it. Many U.S. utilities are already working to update their "dumb" grids with new "smart" grid technologies that include more communication and control, evolving the current grid into one that is more flexible and reliable. But because energy systems are comprised of many interacting, interrelated, and interdependent sub-systems that extract, convert, deliver, and use energy at different scales, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is addressing the need for a modernized grid through a systems approach across the entire energy infrastructure.

NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility is a U.S. Department of Energy user facility that is open to industry and university researchers seeking to solve specific problems in the field of energy systems integration. The ESIF offers test facilities that range in scale from "smart" Internet-connected appliances, assembled into a smart home test bed, to a research distribution bus in a looped configuration that's controlled by a SCADA system. Power-hardware-in-the-loop testing allows modeling software to interact directly with actual hardware, such as an inverter. And a Real-Time Digital Simulator even allows other facilities to connect their hardware or software to the ESIF at a distance, vastly expanding the ESIF's capabilities.

The ESIF's focus on how these energy components, sub-systems, and systems interact is a key to the widespread adoption of clean energy technologies that is needed to meet our nation’s energy goals. NREL's goal is to develop reliable, affordable, and clean energy systems that can be adopted at a pace and scale to achieve global energy and environmental objectives, starting with islands and villages today and building toward entire cities by 2030.

NREL's approach runs the gamut from hardware testing through modeling and simulation, with the ultimate goal of field deployment. NREL is also collaborating across the national laboratory complex to achieve its goals. And while NREL and the ESIF are already breaking new ground in power systems engineering and computational science, NREL is also integrating and optimizing thermal, fuel, and water systems, as well as data and cybersecurity for energy systems. The hoped-for end result is an integrated energy system that operates securely, reliably, and efficiently, even as more challenges tax our nation's energy infrastructure.

Martha Symko-Davies is director of partnerships at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Energy System Integration Facility.


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