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The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is building electrically interconnected laboratories as part of its Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) in Golden, Colo.

The facility will enable research partners to plug in and test new energy technologies on real and simulated power systems before hooking the technologies to the grid.

The adaptability of the facility can be attributed to the Research Electrical Distribution Bus (REDB), which will function as a power integration circuit capable of connecting multiple sources of energy, interconnecting laboratories and experiments. This will allow NREL and its partners to test and simulate what happens when components, such as solar inverters, are connected to the grid.

"Each lab in ESIF has its own niche with different kinds of equipment and functionality fostering research on all aspects of energy integration," says Greg Martin, electrical engineer at NREL. "There is nowhere else where you can bring in a piece of equipment, connect it up and be testing in a matter of days."

The REDB is made up of two ring buses for AC current and two ring buses for DC current and will serve as the backbone for all of NREL's energy systems integration testing.

"You can think of the ESIF equipped with the REDB as a place where you can bring your equipment, and with our real-time simulation tools, we can make your equipment think that it is connected electrically to another piece of equipment, a utility distribution feeder, or even the grid," says Bill Kramer, acting group manager for distributed energy systems integration at NREL.

A supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system will be a key element to testing power systems and components at the ESIF. The system will serve as the computer control system for the REDB and will also provide high-resolution data output. The SCADA system will support a large visualization screen in the control room, allowing researchers and partners to watch the experiment in real time.

Researchers will also be able to see the electrical bus and grid simulators in the control room. In addition, research partners will be able to control the systems on portions of the REDB checked out specifically to them. The data from the experiment is streamed to secure servers, so if a utility is working with the lab, that information can remain with the researcher and its partner. Compartmentalization will allow an experiment to have its own power system and data.

The SCADA system will also constantly run safety checks to make sure that no equipment is damaged or pushed beyond its safety limits.

Flexibility is key

The ESIF labs are reconfigurable so that researchers can adapt as technology changes and advances, according to Kramer.

"The design of ESIF in and of itself is an integrated system. ESIF bridges the gap between electrical, thermal and fuels disciplines," he says.

An objective for the ESIF is to make it so industry can use and modify existing pieces of equipment to work with new technologies such as solar and wind power.

"We are here to help utilities and companies that want to design new equipment that will increase the penetration of renewables into the energy grid," says Kramer. "However, we won't work just with renewables at the ESIF. We could also test natural-gas field generators. This type of testing will also help us move forward because, if you don't take into consideration the overall system and only work on one component at a time, you will never come up with the optimal solution."

A goal of the ESIF is to allow the government, industry, utilities and other laboratories to develop technologies for the future energy marketplace, explains Martin.

"It is important for everyone to be able to do testing before putting something out in the field and discovering that it didn't work the way they thought," he says. "Instead they can bring their equipment to the ESIF, hook it up, and it is going to think it is part of the power system."

The ESIF also is working to make virtual connections to other laboratories across the country in an effort to share expertise. "If you have a lab and want to have a virtual connection into the ESIF with your equipment being tested in your lab, you will still be able to make use of ESIF and all of the equipment that is in it," Kramer says.

"We have this amazing capability that no one has ever had before," Martin adds. "If you have an idea for a novel system, bring it in and we'll test it, or we'll partner with you on some other types of research."

The ESIF is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

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