BNL’s Lofaro looks to the skies for energy

BNL’s Lofaro looks to the skies for energy

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Robert Lofaro drives a Prius, recycles his trash, and uses the air conditioning sparingly during the summer. These decisions reflect not just who he is, but also what he does.

The group leader of the Renewable Energy Group at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lofaro leads the development of the applied research programs for solar energy. He also was the project manager for the development of the Northeast Solar Energy Research Center, a source of solar energy to the BNL campus that provides field testing and research.

Lofaro’s research addresses questions such as how to deal with the variability in power that comes from the sun due to cloud cover during the day and darkness at night. When solar energy comes to the electrical grid, this inconsistent production can cause problems with controlling the power quality on the grid, which has to supply power at a stable voltage and frequency.

This summer, BNL awarded Lofaro an annual engineering prize. The award, which includes a $10,000 prize, is the highest distinction given to members of the staff at BNL.

“It was quite an honor,” Lofaro said.

Researchers in Lofaro’s group will study energy storage systems, which could provide a buffer between the solar panels and the grid, and the use of “smart inverters,” which can control the grid voltage and frequency. BNL will test these system at NSERC.

“We’re interested in increasing the use of renewable energy throughout the country and in the Northeast,” Lofaro said. The uncertainty in the amount of power can cause problems with control of the grid, he said.

Once any new system is installed and operating, Lofaro seeks to explore how long the system can last.

“That goes towards the cost- effectiveness of installing the technology,” he said. “We’re doing field tests to understand how well they perform.”

Many states have targets for increasing the use of renewable energy. New York plans to increase solar, hydroelectric and wind energy sources to 30 percent of electric generation by next year, up from 22 percent in 2010.

As the cost of solar panels has dropped, the bigger expenses for utilities have been installation, labor, permitting, site preparation, and installation hardware, among others. Researchers are looking to reduce these costs and make solar energy more cost-competitive.

The staff in Lofaro’s department is “focused on grid integration,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do in helping develop technologies that would enable the next generation” for a system that would enable real-time interactions between pieces of equipment in the grid, coupled with automatic controls, to provide a more efficient, reliable and resilient power delivery system.

Most grids are designed to send energy one way, from a central power station to customers. When some of their customers produce their own solar energy and sell it back to the utility, these two-way energy flows can trigger protective relays that interpret the flow of energy back from the customer as a fault, causing the grids to open the circuit to shut off the power.

New smart grids will need new monitoring, control and communication technologies to operate properly, Lofaro said.

Through automated switching, areas that have lost power through severe weather events, like Superstorm Sandy, might re-establish power more quickly.

Utilities could take portions of the grid and operate them as small parts of the network, with their own supply of power that would operate on its own if necessary, or as an integrated part of the larger grid.

“You’d need a number of control technologies and they’d have to be able to have special switching – through smart switches – that could synchronize” the smaller units with the larger energy source, Lofaro said. He said the grid today will require years to update.

Michael Villaran, who has known Lofaro since they started a month apart at BNL in 1987, describes his group leader as a “hands-on manager” who is “very involved” in the details of his work.

Lofaro is “well thought of in the solar energy research community,” Villaran said. “Getting the NSERC funded and constructed” is a “major accomplishment.”

Lofaro and his wife Nancy, who works in business operations at BNL, live in East Moriches. Lofaro plays on BNL’s golf league. He describes his golf game as “mediocre.”

As for his work, Lofaro is a firm believer of solar energy,

“Renewable energy will play an important part of meeting the nation’s energy needs for many years to come,” he said.