Photos: National Renewable Energy Lab's newest facility -- a sneak peek

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In this week's feature, "Sun Burn," we explore the progress of Golden's National Renewable Energy Lab, which for decades has been researching alternative energy. A central part of the lab's current expansion is the construction of the massive Energy Systems Integration Facility, which will be completed next month. Here, we take a closer look inside the construction site that will eventually house hundreds of scientists and engineers, as well as fifteen fully equipped labs.

The development of this 182,500-square-foot facility, known on the NREL campus as the ESIF, is an important component of how the lab is going to help propel the world into a cleaner, more energy-efficient economy, the lab's leaders say. It is the place where NREL, which is owned and funded by the Department of Energy, will be able to test out large-scale technologies that could impact whole utility systems. It's also a major component of the lab's recent growth that mandated the DOE seize private property in the surrounding area to make way for a new access road to the 328.67-acre campus.

We took a tour of the ESIF construction site in July, a few short months before researchers and engineers are scheduled to move in and begin work part-time, with full-time occupancy expected early next year The ESIF, which cost $135 million in funds approved by Congress, was a dusty, noisy, enormous construction site when we visited, with workers building out major lab facilities -- some as large as football fields.

Size is clearly one of its major assets.

Benjamin Kroposki, NREL's director of energy systems integration, led the tour, explaining that by having such big lab facilities in the ESIF, researchers and industry partners will be able to come to the lab and do testing at megawatt scales to explore how different energy innovations would work in a real-life system. For researchers and companies developing specific ideas, this kind of opportunity is significant, because it allows them to reduce risks and better understand how their technologies might ultimately succeed.

The benefits of renewable energy are plain, but thus far the grid has not been modernized to really accommodate these important sources of energy in the most effective ways. And that's because this kind of megawatt-scale integration is difficult to find.

"We're looking at how to take technologies and integrate it with the much larger system, so that's the key and differentiating factor of this particular facility...how all these technologies integrate together and integrate with the larger power system, electric system, fuel systems that we have," Kroposki said inside a shack on the construction site before the tour got underway.

He added: "It's really designed around bringing together a variety of...energy systems.... One of the unique aspects of this facility is that it's not single-purposed focused. It crosses all these technologies and it's been designed in a very flexible manner to allow you to bring in equipment and interconnect it into one spot, but have access to the variety of resources throughout the system."

In other words, throughout the lab, there are sections with specific areas of focus and targeted functions, but on the whole, these separate areas are connected, theoretically allowing research to be more expansive. NREL researchers will study and develop a wide range of technologies on this site, from plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to energy storage systems to advanced utility control and metering systems.

Overall, the ESIF has four main laboratory components focused on electrical systems, thermal systems, fuel systems and high-performance computing and data analysis. In that last category, the ESIF will feature a supercomputer that NREL says will be the fastest computing system in the world dedicated to advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The on-site data center itself will also be one of the most energy efficient centers of its kind in the world.

Throughout its expansion projects, NREL has emphasized the importance of building facilities that are themselves green, and they say the ESIF will be no exception. A series of energy conservation strategies will allow the massive facility, at minimum, to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certification, NREL says. For example, the ESIF will reuse waste energy from the data center to maximize building and campus heating. It will also use "underfloor air distribution" for interior cooling and ventilation. Additionally, the facility will rely on day-lighting and high-efficiency lighting.

Ultimately, if this facility operates as planned, the ESIF will directly impact utility bills with its innovations. As we noted in our feature, Jeff Baker, the DOE's director of laboratory operations in the Golden field office, says it this way: "If you help a utility company operate a system more efficiently, those efficiencies are passed along to you."

In his words, "The bottom line is that what's done here today is going to change the world for the better."

Continue for more photos and information from our tour of the ESIF. NREL employees on the ESIF construction site, which is a total of 182,500-square-feet View looking out to the rest of campus through ESIF windows, which will help the facility use efficient day-lighting and natural ventilation Crossover from one section of the ESIF to another NREL calls this area the "office of the future" due to its unique efficiency strategies, including open air cubicles and natural ventilation Continue for more photos and information from our tour of the ESIF. ESIF facade, as of July Future High Performance Computing Data Center, which NREL says will be one of the most energy efficient centers of its kind in the world, featuring warm water liquid cooling and waste heat capture and reuse Views of windows inside ESIF looking out on the Golden campus Construction worker outside of the ESIF site Continue for more photos and information from our tour of the ESIF. Another view of the future office space within the ESIF Benjamin Kroposki, NREL's director of energy systems integration, giving the tour Future home of the Power Systems Integration Laboratory, which will focus on the development and testing of large-scale distributed energy systems and components, such as inverters for wind systems, natural gas generators and battery packs Another view of the facade of ESIF as of July Continue for more photos and information from our tour of the ESIF. ESIF in the context of the surrounding NREL campus Construction workers inside a narrow hallway of the ESIF Future site of the Energy Storage Laboratory, which will concentrate on the integration of energy storage systems, like battery technologies, with the utility grid Benjamin Kroposki, NREL's director of energy systems integration, standing above a laboratory that can be viewed by visitors in a hallway one floor above, designed specifically for tours

For more specifics on the different laboratories, NREL has an interactive web feature that allows viewers to take a look inside each section of the new facility and view a map layout of the ESIF.

More from our Environment archive: "Dick Lamm, Denis Hayes on progress of National Renewable Energy Lab 35 years later."

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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