Six Things I Didn’t Know About NREL

There’s more to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) than its name suggests. Here’s a preview of one thing I learned during a visit last week to the Golden, Colorado, campus: NREL is doing work that benefits every energy user and every sector of the industry—even fossil fuels.

First, a Bit of Context

Unless you work at or with one of the U.S. national laboratories, you probably haven’t visited one. Many of the labs and affiliated sites are engaged in classified work, so that’s no surprise. Consequently, much of what you know about lab activities probably comes from general, scientific, and trade media outlets. They get their material mostly from press releases and other publicly available information. In short, we usually only hear about lab activities when some project has reached a milestone or something controversial has happened.

With that arm’s length access to lab activities, it’s easy to think of these complex facilities in the abstract. That can make it too easy to paint them with broad brush strokes—in either black or white. But when you visit in person, you gain a better appreciation for the daily work conducted by thousands of people dedicated to advancing science and technology in the national interest.

My NREL visit on September 20 was coordinated through HOMER Energy as part of that company’s HOMER International Microgrids Conference in Denver. Our tour group included professionals from a half dozen countries as well as two graduate students from Puerto Rico.

NREL, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is one of the smallest and newest of the national labs owned by the Department of Energy (DOE). Like the others, it consists of multiple laboratories in multiple buildings, plus other research installations. Our two-mile walking tour included three of those buildings: the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), the Science & Technology Facility (STF), and the Research Support Facility (RSF).

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory turned 40 in 2017. Photo: Gail Reitenbach

Everyone Knows NREL for Its Renewables Research

When people think about NREL, they naturally think renewables. The lab is perhaps best known as a leader in the development of solar technologies, but it includes four National Centers—for photovoltaics (PV), wind, bioenergy, and fuel cell research.

Some of the early PV technology development included solar modules built for space missions. For that “extraterritorial market,” NREL-designed modules have reached 46% efficiency, explained Jim Bosch, public affairs specialist and one of our tour guides. The cost of providing that efficiency for the terrestrial market remains daunting, so today’s researchers work on more practical ways to raise efficiency while lowering costs. Those include studying alternative chemistries and materials.

The lobby of the STF displays mono and polycrystalline PV modules, thin-film technology samples, and the first small PV module, for which John P. Thornton hand-soldered each cell in 1966. Today, Bosch noted, it takes 60 seconds to make a complete monocrystalline module. And those modules are rugged. Residential rooftop PV panels have been shown to hold up better than the roof itself in extreme weather events, such as major hailstorms.

The Science and Technology Facility at NREL uses bio-inspired architectural elements; its shell is designed to shed water and provide passive shading. Inside, researchers work on projects from the atomic to the module scale, seeking to increase the efficiency of familiar solar power technologies and develop new ones. Photo: Gail Reitenbach


Now for some of the less-well-known facts about NREL.

1. ESIF Is a Separate Line Item in the Federal Budget

It’s unusual for a single building to have its own line item in the U.S. federal budget. The Energy Systems Integration Facility does. This means that, at least theoretically, funding for NREL’s newest building can be increased or decreased independent of all other lab or DOE funding.

Why is that? I didn’t have time to ask for the full backstory, but the motives probably included encouraging public-private partnerships. Global Business Development Lead Matt Futch, our other guide, told me that, overall, 20% of NREL’s budget comes from partnerships for lab work, while the other 80% comes through DOE funding. For the ESIF, however, 60% must come from partner work, which means that facility is less focused on basic science than on applied and commercial projects. It also means that, overall, NREL is focused on everything from nano-scale basic science research to component testing for commercialization.

The Energy Systems Integration Facility is the newest building at NREL. Opened in 2013, it provides unique capabilities for testing how new devices, equipment, controls, and other components of our increasingly interactive power grid operate in a real-world environment. Photo: Gail Reitenbach

2. Many Consumer Brands Use NREL Facilities

Not so very long ago, connecting any sort of distributed energy resource, even if it was owned by the utility, was a complicated proposition, involving much wringing of hands about interconnection standards to ensure grid stability. Today, we take it for granted that there will continue to be not only more distributed resources on the grid but also that end-use devices will communicate with the grid in real time. But the increased complexity that comes with more renewables and a more interactive grid requires increasingly intelligent control. NREL plays a major role in the pre-commercial vetting required to ensure that new technologies play nicely with the grid.

The lab’s 1,700 employees serve the government first, but they also have external customers. Bosch told us there are 657 active partnerships with industry, government, and academic partners. As a government-owned, contractor-operated facility, NREL is incentivized to get technology developed at the lab out to market through testing and validation of processes and technologies. It also works with private and public partners to advance their new technologies for the public good and industrial competitiveness. For example, First Solar, he said, has $100 million per year invested in research at NREL. With PV modules sitting at 41¢ to 59¢ per watt today, the manufacturer is looking to make modules faster and more efficient.

Futch told us that lots of familiar companies, from Nest to Tesla, have paid to use ESIF. Projects move in and out of the building, and the labs can be configured in various ways to accommodate changing research needs.

One lab, which we looked down onto through a large viewing window, had many of the plug loads you’d find in any home. Manufacturers can bring appliances and devices to the lab to see how multiple loads and energy management tools communicate with each other and the grid—for example, to enable demand response. Futch mentioned that Bonneville Power Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority are among the utilities that have worked with NREL on demand response testing.

We also saw projects outside ESIF. NREL works with all the major vehicle manufacturers, Futch said, on everything from alternative fuels to next-generation system configuration. That might include peer-to-peer energy sharing and microgrids.

These electric vehicles are being used to understand potential next-generation energy system configurations. Photo: Gail Reitenbach

3. ESIF Has 2 Megawatts of Real Power to Dispatch

The 162,500–square foot ESIF includes 15 separate laboratories and can integrate technologies with the grid using the 2 megawatts of real (not virtual or modeled) power under its control. In fact, the ESIF distribution control room, which we saw briefly through a window (no interior lab shots were allowed), looks like a mini system operator setup.

The ability to control real power enables ESIF to see in real time, with real-world conditions, how different technologies fare under whatever parameters the partner company and NREL want to test. That unique capability is a major reason both established and new firms bring their projects to the Golden lab. For example, in the Optical Characterization and Thermal lab, researchers can test specific components of power systems and push them to their limits as they seek to discover more reliable materials.

Hurricanes were top of mind for our tour group, especially as it included two Puerto Ricans, whose home island had just been hit by Hurricane Maria the previous day. One person asked if the lab had tested PVs for hurricane resistance. Futch wasn’t sure, but he did say that NREL has done microgrid testing for the military.

Speaking of the military, the lab’s Power Systems Integration Lab has been used for testing (among other things) microgrid configurations. It’s shown that you can deploy thin-film PV at forward operating bases and lower fuel use by 30%. Beyond the direct cost savings, on-site power generation minimizes the danger to those who would otherwise have to deliver fuel through enemy territory. This lab has also been testing large-scale distributed generation for grid-connected and stand-alone operation for Tokyo Electric Power.

4. NREL Walks the Energy-Efficiency Talk

Beyond renewables, NREL’s mission includes research, development, and commercialization of energy-efficiency technologies and practices, especially at the building level. On its South Table Mountain campus, it’s easy to see the rooftop and ground-mount PV modules from various eras that provide power to the lab and the grid. Less obvious is how the buildings incorporate numerous passive and active systems that use energy efficiently and recycle resources. Examples of the latter include a wall finished with beetle-kill pine and reclaimed natural gas pipeline that provides exposed structural steel support.

Among the efficiency measures are motion sensor–activated lights in restrooms and the use of waste heat from Peregrine—the high-performance computer (more on that below)—to heat the ESIF building. As we toured the STF, Bosch told us that the lab uses energy-efficient direct evaporative cooling to remove heat from labs.

The RSF, which houses all the administrative offices, is a net-zero-energy facility. The building, which has won several awards, is designed to maximize natural heating, cooling, and lighting. South-facing windows—which light long, narrow offices—include horizontal and vertical window shades to minimize overheating and glare. Every third window is automatically controlled to open when inside conditions require venting.

Horizontal and vertical window shades on south-facing windows contribute to making NREL’s Research Support Facility a net-zero-energy building. Photo: Gail Reitenbach

On the top floor, strategically positioned ceiling panels bounce light from shoulder-height and clerestory windows (which can open to vent hot air in the summer) to light the open-office area. The window array shown in the balcony selfie shot below uses interior electrochromatic window coatings to keep heat inside the building in winter while allowing clear views out.

Electrochromatic coatings on this window array help keep the Research Support Facility at NREL cool in the summer and warm in the winter while letting occupants enjoy the foothills view. Photo: Gail Reitenbach

5. A Model Computing Facility Does Powerful Modeling

The high-performance HP computer in ESIF is named Peregrine. Futch told us that, at close to 98% efficiency, it was the most efficient computer in its class at the time it was installed. It’s still the fastest high-performance computer dedicated to energy research. We viewed the bank of enclosures through a large window (ESIF was clearly designed to facilitate tours) while Futch explained that this computer has become the model for all new high-performance computing around the world.

And modeling is one of the major jobs Peregrine performs. Last August, it modeled the entire Eastern Interconnection for 30% wind and solar generation. The model included every generator, line, and utility. The study found that, on a 5-minute incremental basis—the timeframe used by grid operators to schedule resources—30% variable renewables can be accommodated in PJM and MISO system operator regions with a bit more transmission and energy trading.

6. NREL Studies (Gasp!) Fossil Fuels

One of the newest ESIF partnerships is with Southern California Gas. To strengthen its role in California’s energy future while helping the state meet aggressive goals for carbon-free power generation, the company is exploring a “renewable methane” technology. The goal is to create carbon-free natural gas that can be stored and sent by pipeline to operate combined-cycle gas power plants.

The bioreactor facility, shown below, sits next to ESIF. It’s called a “power-to-gas” project because it’s designed to use excess renewable energy. A press release about the project explains that, “Power-to-gas technology takes excess renewable electricity that would otherwise go to waste and converts it to hydrogen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide and fed to a bioreactor where organisms produce renewable natural gas, or RNG. RNG can be used in everything from home appliances to industrial processes, engines and power plants.”

If the 500-kW pilot at NREL is successful—it had just been installed and had not yet been commissioned when we visited—the plan is to scale up to a 50-MW facility.

With a new bioreactor at NREL that’s powered by renewables, Southern California Gas seeks to demonstrate a process for turning natural gas into carbon-free fuel for conventional power plants. Photo: Gail Reitenbach

There’s Always More to Learn

At the end of his orientation presentation, Bosch asked our group to “share the information from today with someone else.” That’s what I’ve done. I hope you, too, enjoyed learning something new about NREL.

Gail Reitenbach, PhD produces Right Hand Reports (—exclusive, independent reports on events of key value to those in and involved with the fast-changing power and electric utility industry. She is the former editor of POWER.