National Labs Demo Remote Hybrid Power Plant
Two National Labs have revealed their “SuperLab” research plant, a hybrid concept combining solar, battery, hydrogen electrolysis, and nuclear energy sources across remote locations.
Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have demonstrated a virtual hybrid power plant linking real and simulated energy resources more than 500 miles apart. Dubbed “SuperLab,” the project connected several energy sources in one system, including a nuclear reactor, a solar array, a lithium-ion battery, and hydrogen electrolyzers.
The SuperLab demonstration in action. Image used courtesy of NREL
Remotely integrating nuclear assets in Idaho with renewable energy resources in Colorado, the researchers monitored the hybrid system’s models and responses in real-time via the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet). Based out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, ESnet is a high-speed network interconnecting research nodes across several laboratories nationwide.
How the Hybrid Plant Works
After months of preparation, the researchers combined energy grid and power production simulation processes across the NREL’s Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) platform in Golden, Colorado, and INL’s Human Systems Simulation Laboratory in Idaho.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s ARIES research platform in Colorado. Image used courtesy of NREL
ARIES incorporated a lithium-ion battery storage system, solar array, hydrogen fuel electrolyzer, and grid interface, producing real-time simulators for both sides of the project.
Meanwhile, around 600 miles away (by car) in Idaho Falls, INL researchers simulated high-temperature electrolysis and a small modular reactor.
Idaho National Laboratory’s Human Systems Simulation Laboratory. Image used courtesy of INL
At the same time, ESnet synchronized simulation and control signals via fiber-optic cables, linking the labs with high-speed, low-jitter connections.
The demo ran simulations under normal and unexpected conditions. One included an overhead cloud blocking solar power generation, in which case the nuclear reactor balanced grid demand. Another test involved a storm-induced outage, where the reactor redirected a share of power to hydrogen production and storage.
Implications and Opportunities
Solar’s natural intermittency and nuclear’s poor demand response capabilities have long limited the potential of these two technologies. Wind and solar power are not always dispatchable, while nuclear reactors supply baseload power at a steady state but fail to respond to demand changes quickly.
Video used courtesy of NREL
Addressing these gaps while adding extra functions via hydrogen electrolyzers and thermal batteries for excess power storage, the researchers demonstrated that solar and nuclear provide stable power through demand fluctuations and weather conditions.
Merging the benefits of solar and nuclear could unlock more renewable capacity for the federal government’s 2030 target to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 92 reactors at 54 nuclear plants have generated about 20% of the nation’s electricity since 1990—a significant portion of the U.S. power mix. Renewables account for another 21.5%, but solar’s share is a meager 3.4%, per 2022 EIA data. Wind and hydropower far outpace solar at 10.2% and 6.2%, respectively.
Meanwhile, fossil fuels still claim around 60% of electricity generation, with coal accounting for nearly 20% and natural gas supplying 39.8%.
Past and Future SuperLab Experiments
Another SuperLab-like demonstration by ESnet preceded the one earlier this year. In 2017, researchers ran a demonstration with virtual private network connections and 80 devices across three national labs and five universities. The project ultimately found that latency variance impeded the co-simulation of high-sensitivity power signals.
ESnet later cut the latency from 11.5 milliseconds to 0.02. That improvement was further benefited by the launch of ESnet6 last October, upping the data capacity and adding more real-time visualization, automation, and security features.
In late 2023, the researchers intend to unveil a “SuperLab 2.0” demonstration connecting 10,000 devices and scaling up to eight national labs. The experiment will test the hybrid system’s ability to meet demands in a large-scale outage from a hurricane or cyberattack.