The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO, has helped shepherd new, renewable energy technologies go from the stuff of science fiction to growing, thriving businesses. It’s work has helped make wind and solar power some of the least expensive options for generating electricity around the world. As it celebrates its 40th birthday in 2017, it promises to continue disrupting the market with new solar and other technologies.
The laboratory was launched in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) shortly after President Jimmy Carter (D) was elected into office. It was created in response to the oil embargo in the early 1970’s that caused high prices and rations at gas stations. At the time photovoltaics were still a nascent technology and wind was just beginning to take shape as a means of generating electricity. In 1991, President George H. Bush (R) gave SERI more responsibilities as a national laboratory, renaming it NREL and making it the research powerhouse that it’s become, investigating biofuels, wind, solar, energy storage, transmission, energy efficiency and more.
“We continually look forward,” Martin Keller, NREL director. “Our leading-edge research is informed by world-class analysis that reveals gaps in technology and market needs. This innovative approach delivers value to American industries and creates economic opportunity for the nation in the form of energy security and prosperity.”
Beyond the commonly accepted boundaries of renewable energy, NREL said it is leading teams that create cost-competitive, domestically sourced products like ammonia for fertilizer, ethylene for plastics, and acrylonitrile for carbon fiber. It’s also working to further integrate biomass into the nation's oil and gas infrastructure with “drop-in” biofuels that can essentially replace the fossil fuels in existing vehicles without making changes to conventional engines.
NREL’s work has garnered significant awards from the start. It’s won 61 of R&D Magazine’s annually awarded R&D 100 Awards. In 2016 alone, it won three such awards including one for the development of the EcoSnap-AC Heat Pump System and an award for a high-temperature, wide bandgap underhood inverter co-developed with Wolfspeed, Toyota and the University of Arkansas. The latter is a traction device for electric vehicles, the lab said could increase adoption. This year it’s already garnered the Technology Advancement & Industry Impact Award from the American Council on Renewable Energy.
The lab’s staying highly active for a 40-year-old. It said it currently has 749 active technology partnerships with 503 unique active partners. The majority, 57 percent, are with large and small businesses. Last fiscal year alone, it created 259 new partnership agreements representing $43 million in value.
Still its focus on wind and solar remains. The facility is manufacturing new wind turbines and technologies onsite and developing new solar technologies, like perovskites solar cells and multi-junction solar cells that have reached solar conversion efficiencies as high as 45.7 percent—among the most efficient solar cells ever produced. It’s also helping to advance energy storage and other solar technologies and is a world-class testing facility for renewable energy technologies that produces reports to help financiers, homeowners, businesses and legislators learn more about how renewable energy will shape our world in the future, cheaply and safely.Tweet