Called the Energy Systems Integration Facility, or ESIF, the laboratory is located at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. The NREL is one of 17 laboratories managed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE); 12 of them are vested in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
As David Mooney, NREL center director for Electricity Resources and Buildings Integration, and other energy experts know, the U.S. power grid – a connection of transmission lines, distribution lines, power plants and substations – was shaped by the earliest generators of electricity, namely coal and oil-fired generating plants operated by emerging energy cooperatives, municipal utilities, or investor-owned utilities.
These plants performed in a highly reliable fashion, burning fossil fuels to generate steam to drive turbines and thus generators. Such plants ran (and run) 24/7, adusting inputs and outputs only slightly to meet what the utility industry calls “baseload” power, or the level of power needed in a particular area at a given time.
With the advent of such items as electric clothes dryers and air-conditioning, which gained popularity in the late 1950s onward, “peaks” in electricity usage outstripped the ability of coal plants and the like to provide enough power. Along came peaking (or peaker) plants, which could – unlike baseload plants – ramp up quickly and safely to provide additional electricity after 5 p.m. on weekdays, on weekends, and during hot weather.
This form of load management, and others, has so far kept the grid up and running, but as Mooney points out, the more renewable energy that is integrated, the more difficult load management will become, largely because renewable energy technologies like solar and wind are “variable”; that is, they depend on the strength of the sunlight and the force of wind.
That is where ESIF comes in. As the first lab designed specifically to deal with integration issues in real-world fashion, the lab will offer the same power levels to NREL researchers as they might find in the field, thus becoming a “plug-and-play” environment that allows experts to work out the (renewable energy) integration bugs before they hit the marketplace.
In fact, notes Mooney, once utilities use the ESIF, they may be more inclined to adopt renewable energy technologies. This, in turn, will spur adoption of such technologies so that they are able to pass their current level of 4.9 percent and enter the electricity mainstream, becoming grid competitive with conventional but highly pollutive fossil-fueled sources of power like coal, oil and even natural gas.
This, called “grid parity” is the acknowledged Holy Grail of renewable energy technologies; the point at which they become price competitive with conventional sources. For solar, this is generally viewed as a retail price of about 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Solar photovoltaic, or PV, currently costs about 22 cents per kWh.
The ESIF initiative meshes nicely with a recent two-year study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, that shows renewable energy technologies can easily be integrated, with caveats. Consider the ESIF as addressing most if not all of those.
It also fits nicely with recent comments by Lynn Jurich, founder of SunRun, one ofthe nation’s largest home solar service providers, in which Jurich notes that todays’ dialogue about renewable energy isn’t about leveling the playing field, which is what grid parity represents in large part, but about creating an entirely new one – a paradigm shift that Jurich compares to the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of wireless technology and the Internet.
For more information on renewable energy technologies and grid integration, visit Energy Boom’s learning pages.
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