The Implications of NREL’s “Energy Systems Integration Facility”

Recently, I participated in a spirited debate on LinkedIn with several industry colleagues on the future of the electrical grid. The debate was spurred by an article in Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek Magazine with the provocative title, “Why the U.S. Power Grid’s Days are Numbered.” Most who participated in the conversation felt that the grid is going to remain a necessary and positive force for years to come, while several argued that new technologies are rapidly making the existing electric grid obsolete.

The U.S. federal government is taking an increasingly active role in helping to shape the future of electricity in this country, with significant implications for the industry’s business model as well as for the design of the grid. Ongoing research at federal installations is focused on technologies that will move the country away from a system of centralized power generation that connects to consumers via lengthy transmission lines, to one in which generation occurs on a much more localized basis.

For example, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has, for years, been interested in taking key military assets off the grid as an essential component of national security. For this reason, DOD continues to develop its own electricity generation systems for “mission critical” activities – efforts that were reinvigorated in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is also heavily engaged in developing technologies to ensure that its key assets – including the national laboratories under its direction – are safeguarded from disruptions in power delivery. In addition to ongoing research in technologies for improved electrical storage, such as that taking place at Sandia National Laboratories, DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, recently launched the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). Among other things, the ESIF will:

  • Engage in “integrated megawatt-scale research and development” of the equipment and strategies to make solar and wind resources more reliable.
  • Host approximately 200 scientists and engineers at its 182,500-square-foot facility.
  • Feature one of the fastest computers in the world dedicated to simulating energy efficiency and renewable options and their impacts on the grid.

Those who doubt that the electric utility industry – and perhaps the entire electrical grid in the U.S. – will undergo significant change in the next 5 – 10 years as a result of developing research and technology, should consider the work being conducted at ESIF. What the future will look like is not clear just yet. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is the fact that those who are not actively participating in the future of this industry, or who are not using a comprehensive approach to understand both the quantitative and the qualitative nature of the changes coming in the next few years, will become increasingly marginalized and irrelevant.

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