by Rebecca Merrett

Moving renewable energy into integrated systems, connected homes

Jul 24, 20144 mins
Technology Industry

There’s more to renewable energy than just a smart grid, and it’s going to have to integrate with many different systems and connected devices if it is going to provide any real value. That’s the view of Bryan Hannegan, associate lab director at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is funded by the US Department of Energy.

Speaking at Clean Energy Week in Sydney, Hannegan said work was being done in the lab to design a “future utility system” – a network of interconnected systems and devices or technologies.

“We’ve created at NREL, our Colorado laboratory facility, basically a mega-watt scale distribution utility in itself. We take the hardware on our distribution utility, we take a high performance computer that allows us to take the data from our hardware experiments and expand that in model into full distribution systems or networks under different market scenarios,” he said.

“And we use that in effect to actually design future energy systems, lay out the blueprint for them, bring in the regulators, investors, theorists and the practitioners and get them to agree on something that is less risky economically, operationally, and technologically. So when we go out into the field and do demonstrations, we can do them and be more aggressive.

“We extend the opportunity for universities or agencies here in Australia to come and work with us, connect to our resources and partner on exploring how to put this architecture together. If you should find yourself in Colorado, we would like you to come and visit.”

NREL is working with the CSIRO and some Australian universities to have individual household smart devices interact with one another through an energy management system that integrates with a smart grid, as well as weather forecast, pricing models, existing energy systems and advanced analytics software.

The idea is to understand the capacity of the grid and what is likely to be needed in the future so that the systems can work together to optimise different sources of energy and lower the cost for the consumer.

“Imagine the following scenario: Your clothes washing machine has a ‘start later’ button, which instructs the machine to interact with the other machines in your home or the home energy management system,” Hannegan said.

“This looks at the weather forecast, the market signals – not just for energy but also capacity, frequency, voltage, and so on. It takes that weather data, the state of the grid, market prices and assimilates all that into finding the optimal time for the washing machine to run.

“It can look ahead and think, ‘When the weather system moves through and the wind speeds are up, the prices go down at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, that’s the better time to run than right now. So I’m going to hold off for now and run the washing cycle at a time when I can use more green power at a lower cost and actually minimise my impact on the grid.’

“If you can imagine now extending that logic to the distributed generator on the rooftop, or the battery at the end of a block, or a commercial or industrial complex down the street, you can start to see how you can integrate high levels of renewable energy, high levels of energy efficiency.”

Read: Building smart utilities.

Hannegan added smart grids need to link with existing energy systems so that conventionally generated electricity can supplement renewable power when it is running low, and not burden consumers with high costs.

“If you start thinking of system-based solutions and looking beyond the grid, the economics of renewables start to look a heck of a lot better.

The US government is in the process of providing NREL with additional research funding to modernise the grid and integrate it into many systems for better optimisation. The US goal, set out by President Barack Obama, is to have almost a zero carbon energy system for the country by 2050.

“Our goal is to double the installed capacity of renewables by 2020, and move towards an 80 per cent clean energy supply by 2035 in the electric sector. That is an important stepping stone to getting to the climate objective,” Hannegan said.