Affiliated Engineers Inc.: U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Systems Integration Facility

New construction of a research facility/laboratory.


National Renewable Energy Laboratory techs work in the Power Systems Integrations Lab within NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility. PSIL research facilitates large-scale distributed energy systems, with capacity for PV and wind system inverters, diesel and natural gas generators, battery packs, microgrid interconnection switchgear, and vehicles. Courtesy: Dennis Schroeder/NRELEngineering firm: Affiliated Engineers Inc.
2014 MEP Giants rank: 9
Project: U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Systems Integration Facility
Address: Golden, CO, U.S.
Building type: Research facility/laboratory
Project type: New construction
Engineering services: Automation/controls, electrical/power, fire/life safety, HVAC/mechanical, energy/sustainability, and other
Project timeline: 9/13/2009 to 11/2/2012
MEP/FP budget: $55 million


Affiliated Engineers, Inc. planned, designed, and engineered the Energy Systems Integration Facility (R&D Magazine’s 2014 Laboratory of the Year) laboratory systems advancing microgrid and smart grid solutions, including the Research Electrical Distribution Bus (REDB) and the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System (SCADA). AEI’s focus in the 88,100 sf high bay lab facility also supports hydrogen research exploring simpler and more scalable energy storage, and fuel cell and cell component development. AEI provided all laboratory MEP engineering as well as fire protection and IT engineering for the entire project.Affiliated Engineers, Inc. planned, designed, and engineered the primary research areas and laboratory systems at the US DOE’s NREL Energy Systems Integration Facility advancing microgrid and smart grid solutions. Research at ESIF uses hardware-in-the-loop prototyping to validate technologies and techniques improving interconnection of distributed energy systems and the seamless integration of renewable energy technologies into the grid. Courtesy: Affiliated Engineers Inc.

  1. Program and scale. As with any emerging science, the scale and nature of research that the U.S. Department of Energy would undertake in the new Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory demanded flexibility and creativity. The initial program statement addressed this need by requiring a considerable volume of physical circuit connections, and indicated three levels of scale: residential, commercial, and industrial/grid scale.
  2. Scale up. ESIF researchers previously occupied a smaller pilot lab within the National Wind Technology Center, between Golden and Boulder, Colorado. The backbone of ESIF research, a network of three ac and three dc electrical power buses, existed on a much smaller scale than was needed, and ESIF’s program required four buses with much higher capacities (amperages) than the pilot lab. Growth outstripped capacity, exacerbating shortcomings. Specifically, a proliferation of conduits converging at the switching room led the initial program (and the Request for Proposals) to require an "inside out" version of the pilot lab bus infrastructure. The REDB that would act as the central nervous system of ESIF and to which all electrical grid components would connect, was engineered and priced up to a conceptual level during the design competition phase of the RFP. However this solution proved to be flawed in the critical aspects of safety and cost, creating an additional challenge.
  3. Lack of precedent. “They don' t make those," was the refrain heard in reference to certain test parameters “such as a requirement for 1000 Vdc” and the lack of market equipment, especially UL-listed.
  4. Hazard Potential. The facility would require use of hydrogen at high pressures and power at high voltages. It also included a test-to-failure lab for components filled with H2 at high pressure.
  5. Transparency Imperative. Part of NREL's mission statement is to educate and corroborate worldwide. Tours can include elementary school children and can occur weekly, even daily, requiring safe access to a pure R&D research lab.
  6. Site. Longitudinal siting along South Table Mountain at NREL’s Golden, Colorado campus created an elevation change of 45 ft.

Gas manifold corridor for cell testing in the Fuel Cell Test and Development Lab, within the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the US DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The space supports in-situ single-cell and fuel cell stack research and testing. Courtesy: Dennis Schroeder/NRELSolutions

  1. Program and scale. Performing a simple circuit permutation calculation based on initial program, AEI determined a degree of flexibility capable of conservatively accommodating over 20,000 experiments. The design team limited installed quantities to meet budget without compromising capability. Scale addressed by deploying outdoor test areas with substantial underground distribution to accommodate larger, grid-scale research.
  2. Scale up. The REDB design team considered options to avoid the congestion of the pilot lab. A theoretical shared multi-use lab accessed using portable equipment failed on practicality. An underground level concept to allow safer switching and access of such critical REDB components as bus plugs, current transformers, and voltage transformers failed on cost. Recognizing from a safety perspective the imperative for researchers to access and switch the REDB frequently, the team determined that the pilot labs REDB room approach, properly sized to contain major safety/hazard components, would significantly realize safer operation and lower cost. Additionally, REDB room layout could be independent of physical lab layout, allowing labs ,physically located at opposite ends of the building, a high degree of direct REDB/circuit adjacency, further enhanced by a twisted bus innovation. Adjacency optimization also increased facility usefulness by avoiding infrastructure monopolization by any two regularly-collaborating labs, confining them to a distinct loop and allowing optimal bus access by other labs.
  3. Lack of precedent. Components were adapted from other market sectors, including the redeployment of the dc traction contactors of train locomotives. dc arc flash innovations were coordinated by the design team, short circuit coordination software vendors, and NREL topic specialists from academia. Equipment was additionally tested for 1000 Vdc dielectric strength. Custom equipment was designed and manufactured locally in Denver.
  4. Hazard potential. A multi-faceted solution with engineered controls and a defense in depth design approach:

    1. Process Hazards Analysis performed to assess risk level and severity level for each hazard, addressing "what if" scenario analysis and process and instrumentation diagram "point to point" analysis.
    2. Design reviewed by the National Hydrogen Safety Committee, NREL EH&S weekly meetings, DOE Hazard Analysis Report, local code authorities, and DOE Operational Readiness Reviews.
    3. Class 1 Division 1 and Class 1 Division 2 spaces identified and designed to code.d. CFD verification of both supply and exhaust ventilation, including hydrogen generating electrolyzers.
    4. Design and specification of a gas detection system.
    5. Design of a robust lock-out tag-out system deploying kirk key (switchgear quality) hardware.
    6. Pressure relief construction implemented for two test to failure labs.

  5. Transparency Imperative. SmithGroup architects provided bird’s eye direct-view tour path independent of service corridors and separated from hazardous spaces. Closed circuit TV allows viewing access to hydrogen generating electrolyzers.
  6. Site. Outdoor compression, storage and dispensing pads, and hydrogen (lighter than air) labs located at the high end of the site for rapid dispersion. Test to failure labs with appropriate blow out panels located at the high end of the site. Ample crawlspace used to cost effectively distribute long runs of routing or REDB lateral cover in straight lines.

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