Practical Advice

Collaboration in Innovative Renewable Energy Development Between the UK and USA

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Wayne Hicks

Public Affairs representative , National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colorado

The drive toward more renewable energy crosses global boundaries and requires collaborative efforts between parties often separated by great distances. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, is about 4,690 miles from London, but it has become a focal point for moving research beyond the United Kingdom.

NREL receives the majority of its funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, and its research facilities are open to partnerships with companies both foreign and domestic. Technological advancements can be put to the test, or developed further, through cooperative agreements reached with NREL.

The international nature of the laboratory is visible. Flags from the home country of every researcher hang from the rafters in one of the buildings on the 327-acre campus. And inside the many laboratories, research is under way that promises to bridge the gap between furthering renewable energy and its widespread adoption worldwide.

NREL, which in the past has worked with London-based BP, also counted the National Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC) among its UK collaborators. NaREC was formed with a similar mission to NREL’s and, soon after its creation in 2002, the UK organisation contacted its US counterpart for help and advice on setting up a testing facility for wind turbine blades. NREL had the only facility in the United States capable of performing  testing of megawatt-size blades. A cooperative R&D agreement – called a CRADA – between NREL and NaREC was expanded to include supporting the Blyth, Northumberland-based company to establish a facility for testing the massive drivetrains required by wind turbines.

“We trained their staff and licensed them the technology to set up their fi rst blade test stand capable of testing 70-m blades”, said Walt Musial, principal engineer at NREL’s National Wind Technology Center. Musial, who leads the offshore wind energy research activities at NREL, is credited with the development of the NREL’s facilities to test wind turbine blades and drivetrains. “Their staff came here and they spent several months in our laboratories, learning our procedures and gaining operating experience. During the fi rst couple of years of the CRADA they were over here every other month. During their growing period when they were just learning, they were heavily dependent on NREL for the development of their facility. We had a very good relationship”.

NREL ended its research agreement with NaREC in 2014, the same year the UK company merged with Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult. Musial said the agreement “was dormant for a while. We were keeping it open for possible future collaboration”.

Although natural gas accounts for the largest single percentage of what is used to generate electricity across the United Kingdom, at 30%, the reliance of renewable sources is growing, according to the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change. During the first quarter of 2015, the most recent period for which statistics are available, the share of electricity generated by renewables increased to 25% from 17% in the same period a year earlier. As the UK produces more renewable energy, the issue surfaces of how to plug that power into the country’s electrical grid. That question brought a Glasgow company called Smarter Grid Solutions to NREL for help.

Smarter Grid Solutions is testing its Active Network Management (ANM) software at NREL to quantify how much clean energy it can move onto the grid. The Scottish company was chosen to participate in NREL’s INTEGRATE project – an acronym that stands for Integrated Network Testbed for Energy Grid Research and Technology. NREL is managing the INTEGRATE project for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Smarter Grid Solutions’s ANM software is already being used in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. About 21,000 people live on 20 of the 70 islands. Power on the islands is generated by a series of wind turbines, with the excess electricity exported to the mainland via two subsea cables. The company’s software carefully controls how much renewable energy is added to the mainland grid, eliminating the need to add another cable. If the software registers that wind turbines are producing more energy than can be used or exported, the turbines can be taken offline or have their output reduced.

“Our software can be thought of as a much more cost-effective alternative to building out additional capacity”, said Chad Abbey, vice president of power systems at Smarter Grid Solutions. “Rather than putting in additional transformers and or upgrading conductors, you have an IT and control approach to essentially make better use of the existing infrastructure to accommodate much higher levels of distributed generation and renewables. That capability is really what we’re trying to demonstrate as part of INTEGRATE”.

The test at NREL marked the first US deployment of Smarter Grid Solutions’s software.

“One of the overall goals of the INTEGRATE project is to increase the hosting capacity of the grid, allowing the grid to host more renewables without upgrading the infrastructure”, said Brian Hunter, user programme project leader at NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). Within ESIF, researchers can use computer simulations and a microgrid to test how renewable energy technology can be connected to the nation’s grid. That is important because a shift is occurring in how electricity is generated, moving from large utilities producing all the power to smaller energy producers adding electricity made from wind and solar power onto the grid.

Abbey said connecting with NREL made sense because the national laboratory is well known for testing renewable technologies and the capabilities housed within ESIF. “It really helps to raise the profile of our company and leverage NREL’s amazing testing facilities and talented staff”, he said.

NREL also is working with Johnson Matthey, a multinational company with its headquarters near Cambridge, on two separate projects to produce transportation fuels. Johnson Matthey’s expertise includes making the specialty catalysts needed to speed up chemical reactions.

“We’ve been looking at developments in the biochemical and biofuels field for quite some time”, said Andrew Heavers, business development director for new technologies at Johnson Matthey. “We bring deep catalyst expertise into this area. One thing we didn’t have is expertise in the biomass processing front, both in the equipment and the know-how that NREL brings. In that sense it’s a great combination of complementary skills”.

NREL and Johnson Matthey are attempting to make an economical drop-in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from non-food biomass, such as poplar or pine trees. “Drop-in” refers to those fuels created through the blending of renewable fuels with petroleum products. By using heat in the absence of oxygen – a process called pyrolysis – NREL scientists can capture the resulting vapour from the biomass. Johnson Matthey’s expertise comes into play by developing a specific catalyst that can convert the vapour into hydrocarbons similar to petroleum-based fuels.

“Johnson Matthey is a large catalyst corporation, world renown for supplying catalyst for oil refineries for transportation fuel”, said Mark Nimlos, a principal scientist and supervisor for the Biomass Molecular Sciences group in NREL’s National Bioenergy Center. “They have a lot of experience, a lot of facilities that we frankly don’t have. We need thousands of kilograms of catalysts to do these experiments. We can’t prepare those. We can prepare catalysts on a small scale and test them, but we can’t prepare them on that scale with the correct specifications”.

Nimlos said he conducts monthly webinars with Johnson Matthey researchers to discuss how the research is going. “It’s very interactive and ongoing. That’s the only way. This works out really well because we can spontaneously discuss how the catalyst works and how to improve it. It’s kind of a continuously iterative process”.

A separate project, funded through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), has NREL working in concert with Johnson Matthey, the University of Washington and LanzaTech to develop a microbe and process that can convert methane into a transportation fuel. The university is responsible for optimising the microbe. LanzaTech is developing the fermentation process, NREL will extract the lipids from the organisms while Johnson Matthey will produce the catalysts that will turn the lipids into fuel, for use in diesel engines and jet planes. Methane is a key component of natural gas, but very few vehicles are fuelled by natural gas in the United States. In addition, much methane is vented or flared at well sites because it costs too much to bring it to market, contributing to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

ARPA-E created the REMOTE programme – that stands for Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy – to fund research into turning methane into fuel. The technology to convert methane to hydrocarbon fuels by chemical catalysis exists, but the goal is to find a more cost-effective method that could be scaled to the volumes of natural gas that are currently being flared. The processes envisioned by the REMOTE programme would utilise methanotrophs (bacteria that can grow on methane) to synthesise lipids, an ideal biological feedstock for the production of fuels.

“The role of Johnson Matthey has been to develop the catalytic process to convert the methanotrophic lipids into fuels”, said Philip Pienkos, principal manager of the Bioprocess R&D Group of the National Bioenergy Center. “This is a novel approach because the methanotrophs are bacteria that make a lot of phospholipids. The conventional wisdom is that phospholipids can’t be converted to fuels because the phosphorous atom is going to poison the catalyst. Johnson Matthey came on board to demonstrate that phospholipids could indeed be converted to fuels and they have done so”.

“Without their contribution all we could make is a bunch of phospholipids”, he said. “We couldn’t make a fuel. So Johnson Matthey was absolutely essential in that critical gap of how we do get from feedstock to fuel”.

Pienkos said Johnson Matthey has proven its value as a research partner and will not hesitate to seek the company out again for future projects. “This partnering ultimately becomes about relationships”, he said. “And trust. We’ve got to tell them our secrets. We have to trust that we can tell them about our ideas, that they’re not going to steal them or share them with somebody else. We have a very good relationship with them”.

Heavers, who said he would “absolutely” recommend NREL to other companies in the United Kingdom, believes more collaborations will be coming between the national laboratory and Johnson Matthey. “Myself and my colleague Mike Watson are regular visitors to Golden, to the facilities there, and we’ve got to know folks there quite well. I think it’s highly likely there will be some interactions in the future. We’re talking with the teams at NREL all the time about potential new collaborations. We think there’s a very good chance of that happening”.

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