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CHIPS Articles: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory
35 Years of Innovation
By Sharon Anderson - July-September 2013
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory with a rich history of success in renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL develops renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and practices, advances related science and engineering, and transfers knowledge and innovations to address the nation's energy and environmental goals.

The national laboratory also serves as an energy adviser to the Defense Department to ensure a robust energy future and to reduce energy costs for the military services. NREL is closely partnering with the U.S. Navy. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has made energy security for the department one of his top priorities. The Secretary is working to advance the DON’s energy independence by a dramatic increase in alternative energy and energy-efficient technologies both ashore and afloat. For example, the Navy is incorporating fuel-efficient hybrid-electric propulsion technology onto several of its next-generation big-deck amphibious assault ships and deploying extensive solar and energy-saving technologies onto shore installations.

The NREL-Navy partnership began in August 2011 as part of a two-and-a-half-year project that will be carried out in three phases. Efficient energy demonstrations are being conducted on Hawaii and Guam. Eight technologies were chosen for demonstration with roughly half at each location. The technologies are now being installed and studied to see which are sustainable. The final phase will be to report on the technologies and help transition them to other sites and the commercial market. The technologies being installed fall into three general categories: advanced HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), building efficiency, and advanced renewables and facility integration. (See NREL Teams with Navy to Cut Energy Use”.)

NREL Mission and Methodology
NREL employs a systems integration approach designed to accelerate the transformation of U.S. energy use and delivery systems geared to advance a clean energy future. Understanding the interactions and roles of energy technologies, policies, markets, resources, environmental impacts and infrastructure is critical to the nation’s energy future. NREL analysts use their knowledge and expertise to integrate and draw insights from complex sets of data across several renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. They explore policy and technology options to evaluate their implications for carbon reduction, job creation and energy security.

NREL is exploring a unique system-of-systems concept to energy systems integration. This approach considers the relationships among electricity, thermal, and fuel systems and data and information networks to ensure optimal integration and interoperability across the entire energy system spectrum. Technology Transfer

Transferring innovative energy technologies to industry for production is one of NREL’s most important goals. Dan Arvizu, laboratory director, said in a statement, "Our mission here at NREL is to move technology more rapidly into the marketplace. This is advanced technology that has the attributes of a sustainable energy economy.

"The investment in clean energy really provides us energy security opportunities, environmental impact improvement that can be quite dramatic and also competiveness in the marketplace."

NREL’s commercialization and deployment activities aim to accelerate new technology commercialization and remove barriers to market adoption of existing clean energy solutions. To this end, NREL has streamlined the way it does business and enhanced the entrepreneurial environment, providing greater access to capital and engaging strategically with industry and stakeholders.

NREL collaborates with industry; academia; non-profit organizations; federal agencies; state, local and tribal governments; and international institutions to commercialize and deploy renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The laboratory engages with the private sector through a variety of research contracting mechanisms, as well as through licensing new technologies. Overall, federal investment in these partnerships has leveraged private funds by a factor of eight. NREL links entrepreneurs with investors, helps small businesses and supports the emerging clean energy business sector through its enterprise development program and annual Industry Growth Forum.

Tangible Results
NREL’s discoveries in renewable energy have shaped U.S. transportation alternatives and provided options to power homes and businesses. For example, the cost of wind energy has declined from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour when the lab was founded in 1977, to 6-9 cents today. These lower costs have helped wind energy become the fastest growing source of new electricity in the nation. The cost of electricity from photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, has dropped from several dollars per kilowatt-hour to 18-23 cents a kilowatt-hour. The projected cost of ethanol made from biomass has plummeted from almost $6 per gallon to about $2, helping spur the construction of the first cellulosic ethanol plants in the United States.

In May, NREL recognized the professionals behind the lab’s greatest innovations from the past year during its Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer Awards.

With more than 100 active licenses covering the spectrum of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies creating several hundred new research and development agreements with industry partners, the awards celebrated NREL’s commercialization success and recognized the researchers and engineers who made it possible.

NREL added 29 new Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) in 2012, bringing its total to an impressive 184. CRADAs are one tool industry partners can use when looking to license NREL technologies; for every dollar that the Energy Department invests in a CRADA, it attracts another $8 in private investment.

Research Fellow Mike Himmel, one of NREL's top inventors measured by number of patents generated and licenses executed, was honored with the Distinguished Innovator of the Year Award. The award recognizes scientists who have shown leadership that has significantly contributed to the commercialization of NREL technologies, demonstrated innovation productivity and created breakthrough technologies.

Himmel is a biochemist whose work on cellulase greatly simplified and lowered the cost of converting biomass to fuel. A principal scientist in the Energy Sciences Center, he has more than 30 years of experience in conducting, supervising, and planning research in: protein biochemistry, recombinant technology, enzyme engineering, new micro-organism discovery, and physicochemistry of macromolecules. He also has contributed to more than 450 journal papers, books, patents and copyrights.

Research Fellow David Ginley received a Special Recognition Award for his innovations resulting in more than 10 NREL patents, six of which have already been licensed by outside companies. One of these patents, for the Preparation of a Semiconductor Thin Film, has been cited in another 45 patents. Over the span of his career, Ginley has had more than 30 issued and pending U.S. patents and contributed to more than 360 publications in technical journals. His work covers a vast range of innovations, from batteries to electronics to photovoltaics, to flat panel displays.

NREL is the principal research laboratory for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). NREL is managed for EERE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC, a partnership between Battelle and MRIGlobal. The laboratory operates the National Wind Technology Center near Boulder, Colorado. NREL also conducts research for DOE's Office of Science and Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

NREL is committed to leading the way as a global model for sustainability and its work is held to the highest environmental, health, safety and quality standards. It’s 327-acre main campus in Golden, Colorado, houses four LEED-rated buildings staffed with scientists and researchers who push the bounds of what’s possible every day.

NREL welcomes research and development partnerships and offers many partnership opportunities to industry, organizations, governments, researchers, small businesses, students, teachers, subcontractors and vendors who share the same safe, secure energy goals. As of January 2012, NREL had agreements in place with 448 industry partners, 65 educational partners, 28 not-for-profit organizations, and 15 government entities. NREL has active partnerships in 46 states, two U.S. territories and eight foreign countries.

NREL Fast Facts
Lab Director - Dr. Dan Arvizu
Funding - $ 352 million in fiscal year 2012

Campus Size
327 acres — Golden campus
305 acres — National Wind Technology Center

National Centers
National Bioenergy Center
National Center for Photovoltaics
National Wind Technology Center

For more information about NREL and opportunities for partnerships, please visit NREL online at

May 21, 2013 - Aerial photo of the South Table Mountain Campus (STM). Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL.
Research Fellow Mike Himmel, one of NREL's top inventors measured by number of patents generated and licenses executed, was honored with the Distinguished Innovator of the Year Award.
Research Fellow David Ginley received a Special Recognition Award for his innovations resulting in more than 10 NREL patents, six of which have already been licensed by outside companies.
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