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Changing electricity market demands greater flexibility and new solutions

DOE/National Renewable Energy Laboratory : 08 January, 2001  (Technical Article)
The nation's straining electrical generation system can be enhanced by moving away from an historic reliance on 'mega' power plants and toward a network of dispersed, smaller-scale generation facilities.
That concept, known as 'distributed power,' will be advanced by a newly established research center at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The Distributed Energy Resources Center at NREL will conduct research and provide information needed to efficiently develop additional power supplies from relatively small, decentralized generating units, ideally operated at or near the commercial and residential sites they serve. This involves both interconnectivity systems that enable electricity produced by a variety of sources to flow onto the grid and specialized technologies for producing the new power itself.

Electrical generation technologies that are well suited for the emerging distributed power market include small natural gas turbines, as well as those that tap into renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind and biomass.

'Coming up with ways to get these various planned generating units to connect up safely, reliably and economically onto the existing electric power grid will be a formidable undertaking,' said Stan Bull, NREL Associate Director for Science and Technology.

'When you add the challenges presented by the pressure for rapid deployment of state-of-the-art generation technologies, the need for the Distributed Energy Resources Center becomes readily apparent.'

Bull will serve as acting director while a national search is conducted for a permanent center director. The center, with a budget of approximately $10 million for fiscal year 2001, is organized around three units: Resource and Environmental Evaluation, Distributed Power Systems Integration, and Hydrogen and Natural Gas Systems.

Resource and Environmental Evaluation will develop methods for analyzing environmental impacts and site requirements for locating distributed power systems. This will include mapping pertinent regions for their sun, wind or biomass production potential, as well as for wildlife and other environmental considerations. NREL's Tom Stoffel was named the center's acting manager for Resource and Environmental Evaluation.

To support the Distributed Power Systems Integration mission, NREL has planned a new facility to test methods and equipment for interconnecting distributed power systems. The facility will be located at an existing laboratory site, 18200 State Highway 128, between Golden and Boulder.

A primary role of the testing facility will be to help develop universal standards to assure the performance and safety of distributed power equipment. That effort is critical because different electrical generation technologies produce power with widely varying characteristics. The data produced by the center will be used by standards-writing bodies to develop consensus test standards and by independent organizations to formally certify distributed power equipment.

Dick DeBlasio, who led NREL's earlier work on distributed power, has been named the new center's manager of Distributed Power System Integration.

Hydrogen and Natural Gas Systems will combine existing research at NREL into what are two of the most promising areas of distributed power generation: fuel cells and microturbines. Much of the currently planned growth in electrical generation capacity will come from advanced microturbines powered by natural gas, and many experts believe fuel cells that produce electricity from hydrogen have unlimited potential in the years ahead.

NREL's Jim Ohi will manage Hydrogen and Natural Gas Systems for the center.
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