One of the miracles of the electronic age is the ability to plug almost any device into a computer and have it perform as described without any further effort on the part of the user.
Called plug and play, plug-n-play, or simply PnP, this interoperability across discrete and diverse systems is almost enough to make the rest of the 21st century tolerable, and now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is using this same device integration technology to not only connect its own laboratories but also to let “Smart Grid” developers test if their renewable systems (including energy monitoring and delivery) actually work.
The NREL is one of 12 labs operated by the DOE under its Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) section, and the only lab in the group to offer complete development, testing, commercialization and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
The Smart Grid is an electronic-age contribution to electricity supply, and allows regional Independent System Operators, or ISOs (think Western Electricity Coordination Council, or WECC), Regional Transmission Organizations (or RTOs, like the Southwest Power Pool, or SPP),and utility power plant operators to balance their electricity loads, cut emissions, and integrate renewable energy technologies without crashing the entire area-wide grid. (To avoid confusion, ISOs and RTOs essentially share the operational "hat", with the ISO focused on operations and the RTO on reliability).
At NREL, these electrically-connected labs represent part of the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), conceived and developed in 2010, where those doing research can go and literally plug in the technology they are developing – be it a flotation device in a wave power simulator or a solar panel coated with a new material – and see what effect their invention has on real and simulated power systems. Power capacity of the ESIF is one megawatt.
This is such an enormous boost to the advancement and integration of newer renewable energy breakthroughs that it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t become mainstream news. And the device that makes it possible is called the Research Electrical Distribution Bus, or REDB -- a bus is a computer subsystem device that transfers data between components in a computer, or between computers, thus the plug and play designation.
The architecture of this bus is made up of four rings – two AC and two DC. The bus runs in tandem with a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) module which enables testers to turn the power on and off without destroying delicate electronics and to measure the various outputs. These, in turn, can be connected with a transformer in a solar array in the Outdoor Testing Facility, for example.
The heavy lifting in this system is performed by the REDB, while the SCADA acts as a controller and monitor, supporting a large screen in the control room on which researchers and NREL partners can watch the test in real-time. It is these kinds of R&D advancements that enable the NREL and partners to win DOE awards year after year, and attract such wide industry attention at its Industry Growth Forums.
In addition, as technologies advance or metamorphose, the reconfigurable ESIF labs are able to transform along with them and continue measuring and testing, since the ESIF buses integrate all three modalities; electrical energy, thermal energy and renewable fuels.
According to Acting Group Manager for Distributed Energy Systems Integration Bill Kramer, the facilities are designed to help electricity utilities and companies design more effective equipment (and peripherals) that will speed the uptake of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and eliminate some of the risks and expenses of bringing the technology to the marketplace.
ESIF is also striving to make virtual connections with other research labs across the nation. This will not only help remote developers who don’t have their own integrated labs to complete development in a considerably shorter time frame, but will – where appropriate – make the sharing of renewable energy technology advances a case of a “rising tide that floats all boats.
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