A tale of two power systems: plugging innovation into the electricity grid – by Eric Brown

Published: 17 March 2017

Energy Systems Catapult Innovation Director, Eric Brown, recently participated in the UK-US Grid Modernization Collaboration Workshop held at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

By Eric Brown

The UK Science and Innovation Network US team put on an excellent event, in partnership with NREL, the Power Networks Demonstration Centre (PNDC), and the EPSRC Centre for Energy Storage Integration (CESI).

It brought together a group of about 45 participants from the UK, the US and a small representation from Europe. There was some debate about the spelling of “modernization”, whether it should be with a “z” or an “s”, but once over that hurdle, it was clear that there is much that is shared. The group was very broad, with delegates coming from a wide spectrum of organisations in research, academia, industry and businesses of all sizes and with a broad set of expertise and experiences.

The presentations and discussions were very helpful in establishing context, building understanding and allowing topics to be explored in detail. The discussions were open, rich and informative, focusing on the challenges and opportunities of modernising the electricity network. It was clear we have many of these challenges and opportunities in common, so there is benefit in seeing where our respective experiences can be applied. However, it was also clear that there are enough differences to act as a source of stimulus for new thinking and other ways of perceiving things.

The US Department of Energy Grid Modernization Initiative was a central theme. From my perspective, this was particularly interesting given the current work we at the Catapult, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and our collaboration partners are doing on the Future Power System Architecture project. Neither project has all the answers, but there is value in exploring how our American friends are tackling the issues.

I was also very interested in the various discussions about test and demonstration. This was particularly helpful as the Catapult continues to develop its thinking and approach on how it will address the needs of UK innovators. The role of facilities such as the Power Network Demonstration Centre in Strathclyde and the Centre for Energy Systems Integration in Newcastle was reinforced. The possibilities for collaborating with the US labs open other opportunities.

A highlight of the Workshop was the tour of the NREL Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), one of the only megawatt-scale research facilities in the US that enables energy integration studies at full power. It is impressive. And the people who gave the tour brought it to life through their enthusiasm for their research and projects.

One of the unexpected outcomes was the opportunity it provided to connect with others from the UK. The event provided a solid foundation for ongoing dialogue and collaboration. I can see a number of conversations that I would like to continue. I hope that those who took part will be able to build on the benefits of the few days in Colorado. I also hope there will be more events of this nature. Full marks to both the organisers and our hosts for what I think was a valuable and helpful workshop.