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 TimmermanToday’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-performing 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 successfully 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 JE Dunn Construction, Denver, 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 JE Dunn 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 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-encompassing 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 energy requirements.

“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.

Throughout this process, architects and engineers worked with NREL officials and researchers to understand what would be required in the facility. In fact, SmithGroupJJR conducted an extensive survey process that determined what types of research would take place at the facility. The sheer number of individual researchers (at least 150 as of April 2014, says Larsen) meant that number and types of potential experiments would need to be adequately understood before the lab’s design could be finalized.

As the orientation and arrangement of the facilities took shape, architects settled on an envelope that featured an office block, clad in reflective metal, serving as the “face” of ESIF. The block ordinarily might not have suited the topography, but the architects’ solution was to elevate the building section, allowing it to “hover” over the tilting arroyo. This offered the opportunity to “hide” truck and utility bays underneath the block. Behind the bright office section, a much darker and smaller building communicates the serious nature of its function: to house the HPC Data Center. The HPC DC serves as a literal conduit, connecting the office block to the high-bay lab space behind the data center. This massive collection of 15 specialized lab environments, accounting for much of the 182,500 sf in ESIF, is wrapped in an Earth-tone concrete that helps minimize its scale and pairs well with similar structures elsewhere on NREL’s campus.

According to Victor Cardona, VP of SmithGroupJJR and director of lab planning, the organization of the lab block itself was a major challenge because of the change in elevation in the arroyo. This elevation change—45-ft slope change north to south and 15-ft change east to west—dictated the flow of the high-bay lab such that facilities that need the high floor-to-floor height are located south of the data center area, and the facilities that need less height were oriented on the north side of the data center area. Also, the areas that are least safe, such as the medium-voltage and hydrogen research areas, are to the north of the lab block.

“That topography played into the image itself,” says Cardona. “As you approach the campus from the southeast, you see the facility as it sits up on the hill to the northwest. The angle, from ESIF, provides views east to downtown.”

High power, high performance
At the core of ESIF’s power capabilities is the Research Electrical Distribution Bus (REDB), which is capable of utilizing multiple AC and DC buses that interconnect labs and experiments. According to NREL’s requirements, the REDB can interconnect up to 1 MW of experimental power-generating equipment, making it the largest electrical distribution bus in the world. Control of this bus is accomplished through a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition software system, or SCADA, which feeds high-resolution data output to a central control room. A dramatic wall-sized visualization screen lets researchers monitor and manipulate experiments in real time. In much the same way that visualization tools allow researchers in fields such as biology and chemistry understand the behavior of natural systems, the visualization tools speed the rate at which scientists understand the management and electrical harvesting processes that arise from the development of new systems. AEI was responsible for the design of much of this specialized system, which integrates with the high-bay labs.

The other unprecedented feature of ESIF is the HPC Data Center, which operates a petaflop-scale supercomputer capable of large-scale modeling and simulation. Normally, this type of installation is, like all computers, a relatively wasteful energy hog, dumping most of its electricity usage in the form of heat. In the past, this heat was typically vented; but AEI’s goal was to achieve a high level of efficiency in keeping with NREL’s overall mission. The best way to approach this was to use the waste energy to fulfill the climate control requirements of the whole building.

ESIF's supercomputer, “The Peregrine”, and NREL’s Computational Science Center Director, Steve Hamond. Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NRELThe solution was to use evaporative-based cooling, powered by warm water heated by the HPC. The system features warm water liquid cooling and returns water heat capture for reuse in the labs and offices. The final HPC system, when it reaches peak operational capacity, will operate at a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.06. This metric, computed by dividing the total facility energy usage by the IT energy usage, is commonly used to describe the efficiency of data centers. A PUE of just above one makes ESIF one of the most efficient data centers in the world, with the potential to save approximately $1 million in annual operating cost compared to a traditional data center.

One of the major challenges of implementing this approach, according to Robert Thompson, chief mechanical engineer at SmithGroupJJR, was the form of heat that was supplied by the HPC.

“The HPC is water-cooled, but the other systems that support the building are air-cooled. Ten to 20% of the energy from this air-cooling that we wanted to utilize wasn’t in a form that we could transport across the heat water.”

SmithGroupJJR worked with NREL to determine their long-term goals for water usage. Data such as water usage and computer operating temperatures were compiled to determine the level of efficiency required to meet energy usage goals in the long term.

Ultimately, SmithGroupJJR was able to design a system that let ESIF not only supply its winter heating needs through 100% evaporative cooling, but also distribute excess heat to other buildings at NREL. This is accomplished through the installation of extensive heating/cooling loops installed in a base-level space that was later added to what was a slab-on-grade design.

Efficiency, safety, outreach
Systems integration is the goal of ESIF, but the same thinking that drives NREL’s researchers to pursue high-level energy systems research allowed the design-build team to meet energy-efficiency goals that include achieving all 56 Leadership in Energy Efficiency Design (LEED Platinum) points applied for from the U.S. Green Building Council. In addition to being nearly 75% more efficient than an average office building, the facility is 40% more energy efficient than the baseline building performance rating per ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1-2004.

But these achievements are only a portion of NREL’s mission, which is to help export the lessons learned both in the design and construction of ESIF and the research done inside. Unlike prior facilities, the new building has been designed to accommodate tour groups while not impacting research. This was accomplished through the inclusion of an isolated catwalk that lets visitors see research activities without interfering. It’s also intended to serve as an international magnet for high-profile visitors. One of the early guests was the President of Iceland. ESIF has also been designed to attract research groups from around the world to develop new solutions.

The 15 labs at ESIF that conduct research in electrical systems, thermal power system and hydrogen energy are accessible to outside groups. Already, these research areas have attracted large corporations such as Siemens to develop their hydrogen fuel cell and other technologies at ESIF.

In addition to outreach, safety was a key consideration in the design phase, because many of the high-voltage systems built into ESIF required the implementation of National Fire Protection Association codes, some of which required the use of extensive and regular checklists. Larsen says these safety checks, which often numbered 250 per week, were a significant challenge to the design-build team.

Now that the building is complete, the SCADA system allows building operators to monitor and control events centrally. It also allows for an early detection system for potential safety issues.

Hitting the ground running
This is the second Laboratory of the Year award for SmithGroupJJR and NREL, which won the award in 2008 for the Science & Technology Facility (STF), located on the same campus as ESIF. At the time, STF was one of the world’s most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly buildings, earning LEED Platinum accreditation.

ESIF marks a significant step forward in terms of efficiency, boasting low energy usage despite the elevated levels of power consumption necessary for the operation of HPC and relatively high levels of voltage used for experiments. In part, says Larsen, this is a product of advancements in technology and the know-how of both designers and building operators.