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Back to EurekAlert! A Service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

 

NREL 25th Anniversary

At the foot of a rocky mesa on the outskirts of Golden, Colo., a small cadre of scientists and engineers gathered on July 5, 1977 to launch the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Research Institute, a federal facility dedicated to harnessing power from the sun. They had high hopes and a pioneering spirit but little inkling of where their ambitious venture would lead. This year, some of those same pioneers are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their ambitious endeavor, today known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL.

"Not many people have the opportunity to help start something from the very beginning," says Mike Seibert, a principal scientist at NREL. Seibert was first attracted to the lab because, he says, it was exciting, new, and a place "to wear white hats and solve the energy crisis ... It was great to be doing something positive for the nation and the world developing renewable energy will ultimately solve a lot of other problems."

Seibert has stayed all these years because of a strong sense of accomplishment. "NREL has had and will continue to have a positive influence on the world through research," he says. "That hasn't changed in 25 years."

As they look back, Seibert and other longtime staffers say it's impossible to overlook how the once-makeshift outpost has evolved into an expansive and architecturally impressive research complex. But, in fact, it is NREL's remarkable record of scientific and technological advances, not its physical growth, that evokes the most pride.

A quarter-century of research at the lab has helped renewable energy press forward on many fronts. Consider that:

    The cost of wind energy has declined from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour when the lab was founded, to 5 cents or less today.
    Lower costs have helped wind energy become the fastest growing source of new electricity in the nation.
    The cost of electricity from photovoltaic panels that covert sunlight directly into power has dropped from several dollars per kilowatt-hour, to 20-25-cents a kilowatt-hour today.
    Improved efficiencies have helped sustain an annual growth rate for the PV industry of 20 to 30 percent a year.
    The cost of ethanol made from biomass has plummeted from more than $4 per gallon to $1.20 today, with a resulting rise in ethanol production and use.

Other renewable technologies have shown similar gains, and in each case, research by NREL, at the Colorado labs and around the country by its partner universities and corporations, is recognized as a substantial factor.

Among the lab's nearly 50 areas of scientific investigation are wind energy, solar photovoltaics, solar buildings, biomass power, biofuels, geothermal energy, hydrogen, superconductivity, distributed power, hybrid vehicles, fuels utilization, building energy technology, federal energy management and advanced industrial technologies. The lab also maintains a leadership role in basic energy science. Other efforts like NREL's Energy Analysis, International, Energy Resource Assessment, Education and Technology Transfer programs fulfill critical objectives as well.

Many of NREL's research achievements have been ranked among the nation's significant technical innovations.
NREL has won 34 prestigious R&D 100 Awards, given annually by Research and Development Magazine to honor the year's most significant technological breakthroughs.
NREL has received two Popular Science "Best of What's New" awards honoring the year's best new technologies.
Other awards include Architecture Magazine's Progressive Architecture Award, two Discover Magazine finalist awards and nine awards from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Excellence in Technology Transfer.

A Record of Research Results

Larry Kazmerski, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics, describes NREL as "a place where progress happens and our contributions are appreciated. Some people don't realize how many world-renowned scientists we have working here."

"Where else can you interact with cream-of-the-crop research leaders from around the world? Where else can you meet the President of the United States, CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations, Secretaries of Energy, the President of Mozambique, a Nobel prize winner, U.S. senators and representatives, ambassadors, and an astronaut while working every day with some of the best scientists and staff in the world?" "Our work is worthwhile, essential," Kazmerski says. "And, it's world-leading."

In honor of its Anniversary, the lab has recognized 25 NREL research accomplishments, listed below by area of research: For solar energy, NREL:

    Developed materials and technologies instrumental in reducing the cost of solar electricity by 80 percent;
    Established world-renowned facilities to test solar cells and systems;
    Boosted record conversion efficiencies of solar cells and modules; and,
    Invented the "Transpired Solar Wall," which uses the sun's energy to reduce building heating costs.

For wind energy, NREL:
    Developed technologies instrumental in reducing the cost of wind energy by 80 percent;
    Established an accredited facility for analysis and field-testing of wind systems; and,
    Designed award-winning wind blades and turbines.

For bioenergy, NREL:
    Established the only U.S. industry research facilities providing laboratory-to-pilot-scale bioenergy testing;
    Discovered and engineered microorganisms that enhance ethanol production from a variety of plant and waste materials; and,
    Pioneered technologies that convert biomass into electricity.

For transportation, NREL:
    Advanced the development and design of hybrid systems that double vehicle fuel economy;
    Developed a new technology for catalytic converters that considerably reduces auto emissions; and,
    Pioneered new analytical methods for measuring alternative fuel performance, emissions and economics.

For buildings, NREL:


    Created a widely used computer tool for designing low-energy structures:
    Spurred new technologies and designs that reduce energy costs 40 percent to 60 percent in homes and commercial buildings; and,
    Developed retrofit methods that increase cost-effectiveness of low-income weatherization.

For hydrogen and fuel cells, NREL:
    Demonstrated technology to produce hydrogen from sunlight and water using photovoltaics;
    Pioneered research that can produce hydrogen gas from simple algae; and,
    Advanced innovative hydrogen storage methods such as carbon nanotubes.

For distributed energy, NREL:

    Established a world-class facility for measuring solar radiation;
    Advanced methods for detailed geographic analysis and quantification of worldwide wind and solar resources; and,
    Established a unique facility to test systems integration and interconnection of distributed energy power resources.

For geothermal energy, NREL:

    Developed condenser technology to increase power output and capacity at geothermal plants; and,
    Developed advanced coating for heat exchangers to reduce cost of energy production at geothermal plants and oil refineries.

For basic sciences, NREL:

    Contributed fundamental discoveries in advanced materials, electrochemistry, energy conversion devices, nanostructures, solid state theory, spectroscopy and superconductivity;
    Invented "smart windows" to cut solar heat gain and building energy costs; and,
    Advanced the science of photoconversion, laying the foundation for future generations of solar technologies
A more detailed look at NREL's specific contributions in the area of basic science will be released later in this anniversary year.

Unleashing the Power of Renewables

As the only federal lab dedicated solely to renewable energy, NREL is at work nurturing technologies that benefit our environment, our economy and our national security. And the benefits of renewable energy research have never been more critical to our nation.

Production and use of conventional, fossil-fuel based energy accounts for 95 percent of all air pollution, with its associated quality of life and health care issues. In contrast, resources such as sunlight and wind can be put to work to produce electricity, process heat, fuel and valuable chemicals with little if any pollution. These power sources can also be employed for other tasks such as cleaning contaminated soils and groundwater.

Renewable resources are plentiful, ubiquitous, and, importantly, they are progressively more cost effective. North Dakota has enough wind to supply 35 percent of the total U.S. electricity demand. The sunlight that falls on our country in one day contains more than twice the energy we consume in an entire year. Fast-growing grasses, trees and other replenishing plants could, using existing technologies, supply energy equal to hundreds of power plants.

NREL's continued research will ensure that these technologies evolve to become even more efficient, reliable and affordable.

For 25 years, there have been three guiding principles that have contributed to NREL's success:


    The research portfolio should be broad and comprehensive enough to get the job done from fundamental science to technology development;
    Collaboration with industry and university partners is a priority;
    Research programs should be directly linked to market opportunities;

The resulting reputation for excellence has helped the lab recruit and maintain a world-class staff, numbering approximately 1,000 full-time employees. Of the technically-focused staff, 47 percent are scientists, of which 63 percent hold doctorates, and 18 percent master's degrees. Some 42 percent are engineers, of which 22 percent hold doctorates and 35 master's degrees. About 11 percent serve in a technical support capacity.

NREL's facilities incorporate eight major buildings, with more than 375,000 square feet of lab and office space. The overall campus, centered at the foot of South Table Mountain in Golden, Colo., encompasses 327 acres. Of that, 136 acres can be developed, while 191 acres will remain open space. NREL's National Wind Technology Center is located on a separate site south of Boulder.

One 25-year veteran concedes that at times it's been hard to keep up with the ongoing expansion, noting she's "worked in dozens of cubicles and offices in six different buildings over the years."

From the Time Capsule

    There have been a number of milestones during the past 25 years for the lab:

    1977 Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) opens.
    1978 President Carter declares May 3 National Sun Day in a speech at SERI.
    1980 SERI's budget tops $100 million.
    1982 Ground is broken on the first permanent building for the lab.
    1983 Work begins at that structure, the Field Test Laboratory.
    1991 President Bush promotes SERI to full status as a national laboratory, and renames it the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 1993 NREL's signature building, the Solar Energy Research Facility, is completed. The "SERF," as it affectionately became known, combined many advanced features and was recognized as the most energy efficient of all U.S. government buildings worldwide.
    1994 NREL becomes home to the newly created National Wind Technology Center.
    1996 The National Center for Photovoltaics is dedicated at NREL.
    2000 The National Bioenergy Center is created at NREL.
    2002 NREL celebrates its 25th Anniversary.

The visit by one of SERI's first champions, President Jimmy Carter, elicits some of the fondest memories from the lab's earliest years. "Carter really wanted to see things, but we were so new, we didn't really have anything to show," says Roland Hulstrom, deputy director of the National Center for Photovoltaics. "So the entire staff rallied to pull something (exhibits of renewable energy systems) together up on South Table Mountain. It was an overnight transformation, and it came together well."

Another vivid recollection from that Presidential visit concerned an afternoon thunderstorm. "We installed three lightning rods atop flagpoles and grounded everything in sight" at the event location on top of the mesa, recalls NREL scientist Neil Kelly, who still flinches when he remembers the lighting bolt that did strike that day. "Thankfully, no one was injured, and the Secret Service was very appreciative (of the precautions)."

Another significant moment came in the early 90s, when the lab's centerpiece facility, the Solar Energy Research Center, was given the nod by Congress. "I was the project leader for that," Hulstrom recalls. "We had requested funding (years before) in 1985 because our labs just weren't suitable. Winning that approval was a major event."

The Lab at Work

Since its inception in 1977, NREL's mission has been to develop renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and transfer these technologies to the private sector. It does so as a contractor-operated laboratory owned by the U.S. Department of Energy. NREL is managed by Midwest Research Institute (MRI) of Kansas City, Mo., Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio; and Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco, Calif.

DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, headquartered in Washington D.C., has primary responsibility for laboratory activities. Locally, the lab's contract is managed by DOE's Golden Field Office.

In recent years, NREL's total funding has averaged about $200 million, of which, about 90 percent came from the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Private firms, other DOE offices and other government agencies provide the balance of the laboratory's funding.

In any given year approximately half of NREL's funding goes directly to academic institutions and the private sector through subcontracts, cost-shared research agreements and procurements. NREL has partnership agreements with approximately 250 industry partners, 70 universities and 80 not-for-profit organizations.

NREL's business and contracting practices have been honored by the Small Business Administration, Minority Enterprises, Inc. and the Federal Laboratory Consortium.

NREL also is working with utilities, state regulatory agencies and international trade groups to make sure that renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies reach the marketplace as quickly as possible.

Moving Toward Our Energy Future

In the U.S. today, energy is the lifeblood of our economy, essential to our modern, daily lives. It is at the heart of our national security. How will we meet our energy demand in the years to come?

NREL is helping to answer this question.

Because the U.S. imports about 60 percent of its oil, there is a pressing need to find non-fossil fuel alternatives which can help keep billions of dollars at home, strengthen our economy and protect our national security.

Elsewhere around the world, many nations are striving to raise their standard of living. Providing clean water, adequate food and health care is a formidable challenge, and one that will cause global energy consumption to soar in the decades to come. How developing nations will meet this huge demand for new energy is of strategic importance to the United States. NREL is helping find ways to meet that demand with renewable energy technologies.

Moreover, there is broad agreement of the continued need to further reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

NREL Director Richard Truly believes that the United States will require new energy options that are affordable, reliable and efficient in both production and use. These energy options should be secure from disruptions from acts of nature, and also terrorist threats. They must additionally be safe and environmentally sustainable.

Fortunately, Truly says, changes are underway that can deliver the energy options we need.

There is, for example, renewed awareness that energy should have a greater presence in our public policies. President George W. Bush has acknowledged this through his National Energy Plan. The plan calls for new incentives to encourage greater energy efficiency and expand production and use of clean energy technologies, such as hydrogen-based energy systems.

Our energy infrastructure parts of which are almost 100 years old already is showing signs of a transformation. Distributed energy systems are gradually emerging, providing increased security and improved power reliability.

Trends like "green" power options for consumers, and more energy efficient appliances, are being welcomed by consumers. New hybrid systems are putting more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. Using the tools of modern biology, we are developing more efficient ways to convert biomass into energy. Biorefineries, like traditional oil refineries, are being developed to produce all manner of fuels and chemicals from plant and waste materials.

Improvements in energy efficiency are insulating us from increases in energy costs, and helping to minimize environmental impacts of energy use. For our buildings, technologies like electrochromic windows, which can darken or lighten to control heat gain from the sun, and solar cells incorporated into roofs and windows, are all helping reduce energy demand. In fact, residential photovoltaic panels today can be found on the shelves of the nation's largest building and hardware retailer, Home Depot.

In the view of Director Truly, the U.S. has embarked toward "a new energy destination the transition is underway. We may someday enjoy the benefits of an advanced hydrogen economy, but until that time we will continue to rely on a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewables."

"But make no mistake, that mix is changing. I see a future where public policy teams with science, so that industry and consumers can benefit from the most clean, most secure and most reliable energy technologies."

Over the last 25 years the lab has provided Americans with many beneficial energy solutions. But its work is not done. Today, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory stands ready to meet the energy challenges of the nation's future.

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