Dull or extraordinary grid conditions can be conjured to stress test clean energy equipment at the ANU’s laboratory dedicated to distributed energy resources.

After three years in development the Australian National University’s DERlab – a laboratory where distributed energy resources can be stuck together in any combination and bossed about by curious engineers – is open to researchers and technology developers around the country.

“It’s a stepping stone between research and development and the live network,” says ANU battery storage and grid integration program research leader Bjorn Sturmberg.

The lab is set up as a failsafe environment that replicates a distribution network. Up to six DER devices – solar, batteries, EVs, smart air-conditioners, programmable loads, etc – can be included on each of the three connection points to replicate a street in the NEM. That little world can then be forced to endure gruesome grid conditions limited only by the lab technicians’ imaginations.

“One of the challenges of moving to a more distributed energy is that we need millions of devices to interact in a coordinated sensible manner, and we can test those things in the lab,” Sturmberg says.

The “street” can be powered by mains power or using an amplifier that can create different types of voltage waveform, so that frequency, power quality, voltage magnitude and other variables can be wound up and down. “That’s what really allows you to simulate any kind of grid conditions.”

The lab also includes a data acquisition system developed at ANU that can perform around 60,000 times faster than most smart meters, capable of recording waveforms of the power system. “That’s the single source of truth,” Sturmberg says, that allows researchers a fine-grained view of the results of an experiment.

Turn it up

The DERlab has a tonne of equipment to be matched with new technology or tested against unusual scenarios. Image credit: Jack Fox, ANU Communications and Engagement.

Labs exist for a good reason. Trials conducted in the NEM are restricted in the degree to which they stress-test DER devices and systems, Sturmberg says. “This is both because the NEM rarely experiences extreme, system security stressing events, and because of the physical and reputational risks of anything going wrong in real world settings.”

Energy security is something you can’t exactly test in the real world, and a laboratory is a better environment to research the effects of collapsed transmission on the second-to-second operating state of the NEM. “That’s stuff that doesn’t happen that frequently in the grid, although it’s been happening a bit more often than we would like in recent years,” he says, referring to the separation of entire states from the NEM.

“You don’t want to bring NSW to the brink of a blackout just so you can test how the control systems of some batteries work,” he says.

Rooftop solar is now the largest single generator in the grid, bigger than any single power plant, “and it is really critical that it behaves as we expect and as we want it to under grid disturbances,” he says. The limited testing of DER devices is a critical issue as the capacity of rooftop solar continues to grow, alongside a coming wave of EVs and other DER devices connecting to the grid.

Not that far!

Another reason a lab beats the real world is that in the real world researchers who want to trial new devices must coordinate approvals and involvement of customers, retailers, distribution networks, the Australian Energy Market Operator and the Australian Energy Regulator. It’s “laborious and slow”, Sturmberg says. “The DERlab, with its replica network, diversity of DER devices and the ability to simulate grid conditions, expedites this and opens new possibilities for rapid prototyping.”

The lab is funded via the ACT government’s Treasury Department, as part of its priority investment program, but it’s a “national resource”, Sturmberg says, and the door is open for technology developers, networks, AEMO, researchers and academics around the country.

“It’s a stepping stone to grid-deployment, and in that sense it’s quite convenient that it’s in the ACT,” he says, given the little territory’s reputation for its progressive attitude to renewable energy. Other partners in the project include UNSW Canberra, battery-test lab ITP Renewables and local network Evoenergy.

The lab was opened in July and electrical engineers around Australia will be looking for excuses to get in there and mess around with stuff. One reaction to the announcement, however, was a bit of a head-scratcher: “This is great, but where is the living lab where we work out what humans want as well?”

Sturmberg concedes it’s an interesting point, but the lab is looking relatively bare on the customer/social research side because “in my personal experience [with consumer-facing DER companies] I’ve found there are certain things you do not want to test in people’s homes.” No-one would be happy if testing a control algorithm “broke” the battery in an electric vehicle, for instance.