New Electrical Sustainable Powerlab smooths the way for energy transition

A new laboratory, the only one of its kind in the world, is being built in Delft. The Electrical Sustainable Powerlab will bring together under one roof scientists researching the generation, transfer, distribution and use of electricity by households and companies. The aim is to ensure a smooth transition to more sustainable energy.

In a large hall, exploring the most effective way of getting electricity from wind turbines and solar panels across the country to the wall socket in your home. This will be the mission of the new laboratory in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, on which construction starts later this year.

According to TU Delft Professor of Photovoltaic Materials and Devices Miro Zeman, there is a real need for this new Electrical Sustainable Powerlab (ESP lab). “The electricity system as we now know it is set to change completely”, he says. Currently, most electricity is generated centrally at coal-, nuclear- and gas-powered plants. They provide a stable supply of energy to the electricity grid.

Radek Heller

“Over the years, I’ve worked at electricity companies and seen a lot of laboratories. But none of them is as big or an all-encompassing as the new Electrical Sustainable Powerlab will be. That’s why I call it the laboratory of the future”, says the current manager of the High-Voltage Hall, Radek Heller. He will also be the manager of the new ESP lab.

Heller is most enthusiastic about the sharing of ideas between the different departments. Several research groups will soon be working in the same lab. “At the moment, there are lots of scientists working on different pieces of the puzzle, but we’ll soon all be solving the whole puzzle together. I’m also looking forward to the conversations at the lab's coffee machine. People from different departments will soon be able to chat there.”

He is also keen to emphasise the important role set aside for the business community. The scientists aim to develop new solutions in the lab that will go on to be used by real companies. “Businesses will also need to see the benefits of the solutions we devise. We can come up with the most ingenious devices, but if they’re not used, nobody gains anything. We want to develop things that really benefit people and help society to progress. This new lab will certainly contribute to that.”

Digital Energy

We are already seeing increasing numbers of sustainable generators of electricity, such as wind turbines and solar panels. According to Zeman, that will only increase in the years ahead. “People with solar panels can supply power back to the grid. This means that power is being generated not only centrally, but also at local level. It’s not only controlled by big companies, but by ordinary people like you and me. This two-way traffic is an important factor that we need to take into account.”

For the electricity grid of the future, the fact that the supply from sustainable generation fluctuates also matters a lot. If it's very windy or there’s a lot of sunshine, more energy will be available. “This has made the supply of electricity more unpredictable, so we need to use more measurement and control technology. Ensuring everything runs smoothly is becoming a more complex process. That's why we’re developing new methods to gain greater control of electricity generation and consumption. It involves collecting a great deal of data. We use the term digital energy to describe this new approach.”

This change will come about in the coming years. Currently, research work on the energy transition is done in separate labs in the department. For example, work on transport over long distances takes place in a High-Voltage Hall and, in another lab, scientists are testing components as converters for the transport of electricity.

From generation to the wall socket

“We’ll now be bringing all of this research together in the ESP lab”, says Zeman. “This will involve looking at the whole system. Imagine we’re devising a new piece of equipment, such as a transformer or converter. The new laboratory will make it possible to test how everything connected to the electricity grid will react to it. In order to check that no faults develop and to see if it works the way we think it does. In other words, we’ll be testing the whole system rather than just the performance of the individual components. This is why the Electrical Sustainable Powerlab will be essential in smoothing the way for the energy transition.”

Researchers will soon be able to investigate which cables are most effective, from generation through to the wall socket. Or to see what the effect is of converters that convert direct current from wind turbines and solar panels into the alternating current on the electricity grid. “Other examples could include a type of converter that enables energy from your solar panels to be stored directly in the battery of your electric car. And if there is not enough electricity in the evenings, you can use the same energy again to keep the lights on. There’s so much research to be done on everything from generation through to the user and we can do all of that in the new lab.”

Armando Rodrigo Mor

In the coming years, new, large wind farms will be developed off the coast of the Netherlands. They will produce direct current, but the electricity grid uses alternating current and that means losses over long distances. Interestingly, most household devices use direct current, including TVs, tablets and smartphones. “We’ll soon be using the new lab to explore whether it’s possible to distribute direct current directly to houses under high and medium voltage”, says TU Delft scientists Armando Rodrigo Mor. He specialises in components that work at high voltage.

In the near future, Rodrigo Mor expects to see two electric sockets in the home: one for direct and one for alternating current. But that is still some way off. The reliability of transporting high-voltage direct current over long distances still needs to be improved. “The new lab will prove particularly suitable for that because we’ll be able to see what works most effectively for the whole system”, he says.

Construction work on the lab starts later this year and it is expected to open in 2020.

Text: Robert Visscher I Photo: Mark Prins I October 2018