8 R&DMagazine June 2014 www.rdmag.com
Laboratory of the Year
without an organized approach to the design of
efficient systems that would effectively support
a “smart grid”, the solutions that do get implemented could do more harm than good.
On the other hand, some worried an all-en-compassing solution to power systems could
produce a “brittle” solution that would have
ramifications on reliability and security.
The solicitation period began more than
three years ago, and was framed as a design-build competition for proposals. Submitters
were given the choice of two sites: a north site
that was narrow and featured an arroyo, and a
south site that was flatter, but smaller overall.
They were also given a 900-page document
assembled by NREL that didn’t contain any
physical requirements, just performance and
“We didn’t say what the lab needed to be, just
what the lab needed to do,” says Brian Larsen,
project manager for the Energy Systems Integration Laboratory at NREL. This document, says
Larsen, gave the bidders the freedom to create a
unique vision for the new lab facility. But the wish
list for the new facility, he says, was well defined
from the beginning: From 150 to 250 labs and
offices, eight research test buses, a HPC facility
and a significant amount of available power: 2
MW initially, with 10 MW at full capacity.
“The document went miles beyond simple
LEED requirements. It was all about energy, and
everything in the facility would be in service
of energy reduction,” says Brad Gildea, project
architect with SmithGroupJJR, which eventually
won the bid with AEI. The performance specifications had specific requirements on energy
metrics, usage in the office buildings and meeting certain requirements, such as the thermal
performance of the envelope.
One of the original ideas by SmithGroupJJR
was a single “box”; but later in the design process,
the architects realized that treating each portion as
an individual component was the best approach.
A circulation strategy was adopted that would tie
the three major components together: office spaces, a HPC facility and high-bay labs.
cessfully test, model and develop power systems
in a controlled environment. Only in a rigorous
scientific setting could the scientists properly
develop solutions; and toward that, NREL has
built the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), a building that, for the first time,
is able to develop and test complete low- and
medium-voltage power systems on a large scale,
and do so in a highly efficient manner. True to
NREL’s goal of high efficiency in all aspects of its
work, the design-build team, which was led by
SmithGroupJJR, Phoenix, and Affiliated Engineers Inc. (AEI), Madison, Wisc., developed a
workplace that consumes 74% less energy than
the national average office buildings, yet offers
high-bay lab spaces, extensive outdoor test areas,
hydrogen test facilities and a high-performance
computing (HPC) data center.
By demonstrating a commitment to systems
integration in the very facility designed to further this cause, NREL, SmithGroupJJR and AEI
have won the 2014 R&D Magazine Laboratory
of the Year.
An optimized solution
More than five years ago, NREL recognized the
need for a facility dedicated to power systems
research. Researchers were concerned that
Today’s smartphone is a complicated power device, using a small lithium-ion battery of about 1,400-mAh capacity to power a variety of electronic systems, including a
touchscreen display, a central processing unit,
antennas, speakers and a microphone. All of its
components, including the materials used to
build it, are optimized to perform as efficiently
as possible to extend battery life.
Increasingly, the integration of power systems
exemplified by the smartphone is being demonstrated on ever-larger scales. Hybrid cars and
rooftop solar arrays illustrate consumer-level
power system integration, and large-scale solar
and wind turbine installations offer a look at the
future of industrial-scale power systems.
Demand for high-performance, high-power
electrical systems has stretched the capabilities
of manufacturers, driving research efforts.
Researchers working at the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory
(NREL), which has developed power systems for
decades, recognize this pressure for better-per-forming power systems and have embarked on
an initiative called Energy Systems Integration
to improve the development process.
The solution, they realized, would have to be
an all-inclusive approach, one that could suc-
The 2014 Lab of the Year was built to help efficiently join power systems,
but it masters integration on several other levels.
View of ESIF from protected arroyo. Image: Bill Timmerman