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FPGAs in National Instruments’ CompactRIO help National Lab researchers figure out how to connect renewable energy sources to the grid

Xilinx Employee
Xilinx Employee
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By Dave Wilson, Academic Marketing Director, National Instruments



Integrating renewable energy generation technologies with the existing power grid presents many tough challenges. NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is addressing these challenges through numerous individual experiments conducted in several laboratories covering solar and wind power-generation systems, grid planning and operations, energy storage, building technologies, fuel cells, and advanced vehicles. NREL is conducting these experiments in its Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), a 182,500 ft2 testing facility in Golden, Colorado. NREL researchers needed an easily reconfigured power-monitoring solution that provides real-time data from the experiments. Two of the unique requirements for this facility included megawatt-scale hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulations and petascale computing. Live analysis of complex energy experiments demanded high-speed and high-resolution data.


The facility has two ac and two dc ring buses connecting multiple energy sources across the laboratories for plug and play testing at grid scale levels and researchers needed a power monitor they could configure for individual multiphase AC and DC measurements. They also needed a configurable power meter that mimics multiple circuit breakers while analyzing power characteristics such as real power, reactive power, and energy. The power monitor also had to communicate to various third-party HMIs (human-machine interfaces) and programmable logic controllers (PLCs). There were no off-the-shelf solutions available to meet these requirements so National Instruments (NI) Alliance Partner Optimation was hired to develop such a device for the ESIF.



Optimation NREL Monitoring System 2.jpg



Optimation provided software images for the more than 70 NI CompactRIO Rugged and Reconfigurable Control and Monitoring Units installed within electrical panels throughout the ESIF. Optimation’s overall solution monitors electrical conditioning components between the ESIF’s power sources and the laboratory power connections. As a result, any DUT (device under test) or equipment used for testing in the lab is monitored by an NI CompactRIO. Voltage transformers bring experimental voltage levels into a range compatible with the NI equipment, protecting it from excess voltage. The NI CompactRIO devices are distributed throughout the ESIF and acquire GPS-synchronized voltages and currents—up to 1000V and 1600A.


The Optimation team considered using traditional PLCs during preliminary project phases. However, it quickly became apparent that the system performance requirements exceeded the abilities of PLCs so Optimation selected NI’s CompactRIO hardware and LabVIEW software because of the programming flexibility and deterministic timing capabilities of CompactRIO and NI’s diverse set of compatible, high-performance I/O modules. That deterministic timing is provided by Xilinx FPGAs embedded in the CompactRIO controllers. The Optimation team developed seven custom FPGA configurations for the CompactRIO platform, permitting fast reconfiguration of the power-monitoring systems to suit various experimental requirements.


Several components of this NI-based solution proved critical to the project’s success. First, the LabVIEW FPGA Module made it possible to implement a system that could identify unsafe electrical conditions and report these conditions back to the control systems in real time. Second, simultaneously sampling data across input channels combined with the accuracy of the NI 9467 GPS Timestamping and Synchronization Module delivered the desired 100nsec timing synchronization. Finally, the processing power of the CompactRIO real-time controllers allows the system to acquire and process 28 channels at 51,200 samples/sec while simultaneously managing other functions including alarm monitoring and communications over TCP/IP and Modbus networks. NI solutions permitted Optimation’s development team to aggressively execute the project, resulting in a solution that was ahead of schedule and under budget.


Note: Craig Eidson and Jennfer Palumbo of Optimation Technology submitted this project to the NI Engineering Impact Awards 2014 competition and won in the Energy category. Optimation Technology also received the Intel Internet of Things Award for developing a high-speed electrical analysis system for facility-wide energy research using the CompactRIO platform and the LabVIEW Real-Time Module.