Virtual SuperLab combines nuclear and renewable powers

For 60 minutes, a power plant like no other existed in the US Mountain West. It combined a solar array, a lithium-ion battery, hydrogen electrolyzers, and a nuclear reactor. While the plant only existed virtually, the exercise did demonstrate that these diverse energy capabilities can be made to supplement each other, suggesting that large-scale renewable energy sources can be introduced into the energy system without interruptions in power supply.

The unique power plant was part of a national research and development project to remotely connect energy assets in real time using the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet). By linking the capabilities at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the researchers created a collaborative “SuperLab” allowing them to study an energy system currently not in existence.

“Integrating nuclear assets deployed at INL and connecting them with renewable energy assets at NREL showcases the power of energy hybridization technology and underscores the importance of connectivity in achieving sustainable energy solutions,” said Rob Hovsapian, research lead in hybrid energy systems at NREL.

Imperative to limit latency variance

The SuperLab demonstration took place in January 2023 following months of preparation by several dozen researchers at INL, NREL, and ESnet as part of Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES), NREL’s platform for power system emulation.

Notably, the involved energy capabilities are placed hundreds of miles apart in the physical world, adding to the complexity of the exercise. Even relatively small fluctuations or delays in communication – the so-called latency – could have significant impacts on the performance of the virtual hybrid energy plant.

Following a previous ARIES exercise in 2017, the ESnet team managed to reduce latency variance dramatically, bringing it down from 11.5 milliseconds to 0.02 milliseconds. This has been very useful in subsequent exercises, including the hybrid energy SuperLab. Further, the January 2023 exercise benefitted from the recent launch of ESnet6, the latest iteration of ESnet’s high-speed science network.

“ESnet is proud to support the ARIES project,” said Eli Dart, Science Engagement acting group lead at ESnet. “These demonstrations effectively use the OSCARS virtual circuit capabilities of ESnet6. ARIES requires low jitter and deterministic behavior, which OSCARS can provide over dedicated point-to-point connections. Together ESnet and the ARIES team worked on both demonstrations, and we look forward to continuing this collaboration in the future.”

Next: simulating a major breakdown

The SuperLab simulation demonstrated that nuclear power and renewables could be used in tandem for the electric grid. Nuclear reactors operate best in a steady state as a source of baseload power but cannot respond quickly to changes in demand. Wind and solar power can provide intermittent power but are not always dispatchable. Linked together, they can provide stable power during abrupt changes in demand or weather conditions. And for even more functionality, the researchers added hydrogen electrolyzers and thermal batteries to store excess energy.

During the demonstration, the researchers found that their hybrid plant performed as desired. First, they simulated a sudden loss in solar power from a passing cloud: the nuclear reactor stepped in to support grid demand. Then, when they simulated a storm knocking out neighboring power lines, the nuclear reactor ramped down its power to the grid and redirected it to increase hydrogen production and storage. These scenarios provide developers with a baseline and high-quality operational data for how hybrid renewable-nuclear designs might operate together for a reliable power grid.

The next SuperLab exercise is planned for January 2024. The researchers plan to study how a major outage from a hurricane or cyberattack would play out on a distributed energy system. The scale of this experiment will be greater than anything before, involving Flexlab, an advanced integrated building and grid technologies testbed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Assuming it is successful, the virtual hybrid power plant will allow the research community to emulate national-scale scenarios on real power hardware, helping to mitigate risk for future energy transition strategies – and showing what is possible when US research capabilities are combined in novel ways.


The text is inspired by the article “Combined “SuperLab” Demonstrates Unique Hybrid Power Plant” by Connor O’Neil, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, at the NREL website.

Published: 10/2023

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