NREL: Saying Yes to Water Power Success: NREL Project Standouts in WPTO Accomplishments Report

This week, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) published their 2019–2020 Accomplishments Report. Encapsulating significant outcomes from both WPTO’s Hydropower and Marine and Hydrokinetics (MHK) Programs, the publication highlights key portfolio achievements and provides a sneak peek into activities coming down the pike in 2021.
Several National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects are spotlighted in this seminal report. Let’s take a closer look.

Leveraging Hydropower and PSH to Evolve Beyond Business as Usual
Formed in 2019, the Hydropower and Water Innovation for a Resilient Electricity System (HydroWIRES) Initiative aims to understand, enable, and improve hydropower and pumped storage hydropower’s (PSH’s) contributions to reliability, resilience, and integration in a rapidly evolving electricity system.

Through a number of technology development projects, the initiative pinpointed new approaches to design and configure PSH to reduce capital costs and environmental impacts. For example, Obermeyer’s design would reduce excavation costs by eliminating the underground powerhouse, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) put forward a modular configuration of PSH that uses pressurized air in tanks to increase the effective head.

The initiative also supported the Furthering Advancements to Shorten Time (FAST) Commissioning for Pumped-Storage Hydropower Prize. The NREL-administered prize solicited new ideas for how to shorten timelines and reduce the cost and risk of commissioning future PSH projects.

Advanced Manufacturing and Hydropower Join Forces
Funded by WPTO, administered by NREL, and supported by ORNL, the Innovations in Advanced Manufacturing for Hydropower (I AM Hydro) Prize challenged competitors to dramatically lower the costs of hydropower components and systems and shrink production timelines by leveraging the power of advanced manufacturing.

In December 2020, a total of 11 winners were chosen. Ten promising submissions were awarded the Innovator Prize, receiving $15,000 each to further evolve their concepts throughout 2021.

Top honors went to Cadens LLC for their grand-prize-winning submission. Recipient of a $25,000 grand prize, the Utility of Large Area AM for Small Hydro concept involves the design and construction of 3D-printed turbine components via additive manufacturing to produce a low-cost, readily customizable, modular small hydro system.

Taking a Tidal Turbine for a Spin in New York’s East River
Image of three tidal turbines positioned on a triangular frame next to a river. A large bridge spans the river in the background.
Verdant’s TriFrame mount allows three turbines to be deployed and retrieved at once. Photo courtesy of Verdant Power
In October 2020, Verdant Power of New York successfully deployed three tidal-power turbines with their new TriFrame mount at its Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy site in New York’s East River. The mounting allows all three turbines to be deployed and retrieved at once, reducing both the timeline and cost of installation and maintenance. With support from WPTO, NREL, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Verdant plans to assess the device’s performance throughout 2021.

Employing the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology Facility (CoMET), an NREL team is finalizing the manufacture of thermoplastic-fiberglass composite blades and a data-acquisition system that measures blade loads for a fourth turbine. This turbine will be swapped with one of the existing turbines during a “retrieve and replace” operation of the TriFrame, currently scheduled for April 2021.

Following a 6-month period of operation, the NREL blades will return to CoMET for an investigation into the effects of seawater on the thermoplastic materials.

The data collected from this deployment will be the first-ever measurement of loads on thermoplastic blades deployed on a tidal turbine. This critical data will help to improve our understanding of the forces that tidal turbines experience in operational conditions.

Where the Waves Are: Wave Energy Resource Characterization
Image of 6 people wearing hard hats and life vests standing on a boat. Next to them are two tidal energy resource characterization instruments.
NREL researcher Levi Kilcher, wearing the white hard hat, works with a team to deploy tidal energy resource characterization instruments on July 24, 2017, laying the groundwork for industry to efficiently extract marine energy resources to power communities. Photo by NREL
At the end of 2020, DOE developed a methodology and released new models and characterization data on the U.S. wave energy resource, including the highest resolution, most comprehensive wave data set publicly available to date.

With funding from WPTO, NREL led the project team with support from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Sandia National Laboratories. The new methodology, created by the multilab resource characterization project, supports a more complete accounting of how wave energy totals are estimated, resulting in a 30% increase in the estimate of the U.S. wave energy resource potential.

The project team also developed publicly available high-resolution wave resource models to cover the entire U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, spanning 200 nautical miles from shore (including island territories), and covering a 32-year time frame.

The improved resource assessment methodology coupled with the longer record of wave history equips the marine energy industry with the data they need to identify exactly where marine energy projects could prove most viable and design technologies appropriate for the site of use.

Bolstering the Blue Economy
An entire world of possibility lies beneath the waves, which is why WPTO launched the Powering the Blue Economy™ (PBE) Initiative. Zeroing in on high-potential opportunity areas for marine energy applications, such as providing power at seaPDF and supporting resilient coastal communitiesPDF, the initiative aims to support economic development, entrepreneurial ventures, and job growth in the blue economy.

From 2017–2019, WPTO, NREL, and PNNL investigated potential opportunities for integration of marine energy into blue economy sectors and published their findings in Powering the Blue Economy: Exploring Opportunities for Marine Renewable Energy in Maritime Markets. The report identified eight key markets likely to benefit from marine renewable energy. The release of the report sparked a new research initiative in 2019, and NREL, in collaboration with PNNL, has played an active role in many of the research projects and funding opportunities under Powering the Blue Economy.

To spur entrepreneurial growth in this space, WPTO launched several prize competitions underneath the PBE umbrella. NREL serves as administrator of two of these prizes—the Waves to Water Prize and the Ocean Observing Prize—and manages the Marine Energy Collegiate Competition.

Cultivating Tomorrow’s Water Power Professionals via Hydropower and Marine Energy STEM Hubs
Image of an educational display on renewable ocean energy. A large blue, illuminated tank is in the foreground, exhibits on offshore wind and marine energy devices are next to the tank.
From the STEM portals to a partnership with the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, NREL and WPTO are inspiring the future blue-economy workforce. Photo courtesy of Mystic Aquarium
As part of an effort to inspire the best and brightest to pursue careers in the water power workforce, WPTO and NREL launched the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) portals for water power technologies.

Offering a vast collection of open-source resources for both students and educators, the STEM Hydropower Portal and the STEM Marine Renewable Energy Portal can support young people in their exploration of these industries.

The hubs feature NREL-aggregated resources from a number of industry and academic partners, as well as new content commissioned by WPTO, such as workforce data, opportunities for site tours, information on training programs, and materials for educators such as animations, games, and lesson plans.

From buoying the blue economy to building resilience and flexibility in our electricity system, NREL researchers have been hard at work this past year. Learn more about these innovative projects and follow their progress in 2021.

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