PNNL

Tri-Cities picked for multi-million dollar electric grid research complex

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been picked as the site of a new national grid energy research facility by the Department of Energy.

The proposed project would mean tens of millions of dollars will be spent on a new complex at the Richland campus of the Department of Energy national laboratory.

And it’s expected to attract additional funding and researchers to PNNL.

“(Energy storage) is an area of critical importance to the Department of Energy as it takes on the energy resilience problem for the country,” said Steven Ashby, PNNL director. “We expect to see funding in this area increase over time.”

The facility would help modernize the nation’s utility grid to make it more resilient, secure, reliant and flexible.

Affordable energy storage could help ensure that electricity supplies can recover rapidly if there are malicious attempts to tamper with the grid or if severe weather or natural disasters take down parts of the grid.

“If you had longer lasting batteries . . . in terms of days or weeks, that would change the game in terms of resiliency,” said Ashby.

Energy storage technologies also could help include significantly more renewable energy, such as intermittent wind or solar production, onto the grid.

State money for PNNL equipment

PNNL was picked for the facility by an independent review team that evaluated several potential options.

The initial approval is for authorization to begin planning and designing the research building.

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The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus in north Richland has been picked as the site for a new building, the Grid Energy Storage Facility. David Wyatt Courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Additional approvals will be needed, along with money for the project in the federal budget.

The Trump administration’s budget request for the next fiscal year includes $5 million for planning and design work to get the project started.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., will continue to ensure the project is supported in the Congressional budget process, he said.

“Affordable grid energy storage is going to be critical for our nation’s energy future and this new facility will build upon PNNL’s expertise in this field of research,” he said.

The Washington state Legislature also is providing some key seed money for the project, with Rep. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick., and Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, leading efforts to secure $8.3 million in the state’s 2019-21 capital budget to purchase equipment for the proposed new facility.

“As we continue moving toward a future in which we are increasingly reliant on a more flexible power grid, the advancement of scalable, reliable and cost effective energy storage must be a top priority,” Boehnke said during the legislative session.

The new facility and the equipment bought with state money will ensure that it is, he said.

“Were it not for this state commitment, our chances would be diminished,” Ashby said.

PNNL leading in grid energy storage

PNNL already has been doing extensive work in grid energy storage and battery reliability testing.

It has provided leadership to DOE’s goals on modernizing the grid through research that has focused on improving battery performance, reliability and safety.

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Bruce Walker, the Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity, learned about PNNL’s grid modernization projects during a visit to the national lab in Richland. PNNL is working to transform the nation’s century-old electric grid by advancing new technologies to enhance its reliability, resiliency and security. Courtesy photo

Its current Energy Storage Reliability Test Laboratory brings together the lab’s capabilities in grid energy storage and power grid modernization, backed by researchers in a wide breadth of scientific disciplines.

DOE has primarily focused on accelerating the development of rechargable lithium-ion battery technology, used for electric vehicles and portable electronics like mobile phones and, to a smaller extent, grid storage.

But it took 40 years to get the current lithium-ion batteries to the current state of technology, said Jud Virden, the associate laboratory director for PNNL’s energy and environment directorate.

Bruce Walker, the DOE assistant secretary for the Office of Electricity, said when he visited PNNL last year that the nation can’t wait another 40 years to develop the next generation of batteries.

With the current technology for lithium ion batteries, it may not be possible to lower costs enough to make them practical for the scale of storage needed on the grid.

Energy storage materials, technologies

“When you start talking about grid-storage you are not limited by the size or weight of the battery like you might be for transportation so it opens up a whole new set of materials you could look at for that big, longer-term energy storage,” Virden explained.

Grid-scale energy storage technologies could be expanded to include flow batteries, aqueous zinc and sodium systems.

The PNNL facility would enable independent testing of the next generation of grid energy storage materials and systems under realistic grid operating conditions.

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A new Grid Energy Storage Facility proposed for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland would make the nation’s power grid more resilient, reliable, secure and flexible. File The News Tribune

“Any new technology that is being proposed out there by the smartest people in the world . . . we could start to evaluate it early and understand how it really performs — do apple-to-apple comparisons,” Virden said.

The goal is to validate technology and make any improvements needed before it scales up for use by utilities, he said.

The facility at PNNL also would help accelerate development by using rigorous grid performance requirements to remove risk from new projects, according to PNNL.

And it would provide coordination across other DOE labs, academia and private entities to help solve cross-cutting challenges.

The project is intended not only to improve U.S. grid resiliency and security, but maintain the United State’s research and development leadership in energy storage innovation, according to PNNL.

The new grid energy storage facility would be a key part of a larger enhanced energy project proposed by DOE, the Advanced Energy Storage Initiative.

The PNNL building would be the first of its size for the DOE Office of Electricity, Ashby said.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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