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Sustainability Efforts Earn Accolades for NREL

January 20, 2012

Photo of a bike rider moving in front of an NREL sign. Enlarge image

As part its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission, NREL supports alternate ways for its employees to get to work including bicycling, EcoPasses for public transportation and vanpool vouchers.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is known nationally for its leading edge work in renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. But, NREL also has been a quiet leader in sustainability efforts.

Now this aspect of the lab is getting noticed. This past year, NREL received three national awards — one from the White House and two from DOE — for its decade long efforts to "walk the talk."

"The mission of NREL lends itself to running the laboratory in the most sustainable manner possible," NREL Director of Sustainability Frank Rukavina said. "It means minimizing the amount of resources we use and the waste we generate all while maximizing the output of the laboratory. At NREL, we're managing today's needs for the benefit of future generations."

According to Rukavina, although NREL has been a leader in federal sustainability efforts for more than a decade, applying for awards has not been a staff priority. The focus has been on "getting things done."

NREL recently developed a comprehensive Campus Master Plan with extensive efforts to increase building densities, preserve and enhance open space, and establish a walkable campus.

"Master planning and creating a walkable campus are imperative because NREL expects to see over a 300% increase in our main campus' footprint between now and 2020," Rukavina said. "While it presents our team with a challenge, this growth is needed to maintain NREL's position as the national leader for renewable energy and energy efficiency research."

NREL's energy efficient buildings, renewable power supplies, transportation and campus operations have evolved to become an integrated system balancing environmental, social, and economic goals. NREL has been able to steadily reduce energy consumption despite a 22% increase in staff from 2010 to 2011, by enhancing building efficiencies and adding renewable energy throughout the campus including:

  • Approximately 2.7 megawatts (MW) of on-site photovoltaic (PV) panels from Power Purchase Agreements, which displace roughly 19.5% of NREL's electric use.

  • NREL also is adding 1.7 MW of purchased PV panels, which will displace an additional 12% of electricity use.

  • The waste-wood-fired Renewable Fuel Heating Plant currently provides 50% of the heat in the district heating system offsetting the lab's natural gas use.

  • Solar hot water systems, ventilation air preheating systems, and Trombe walls add an annual thermal output of nearly 10.2 million Btu.

  • NREL has leveraged extensive use of building design best practices, which incorporate passive solar and daylighting.

Photo of rows of photovoltaic panels. Enlarge image

The Research Support Facility at NREL is covered in photovoltaic (PV) panels. Within the next year, electricity generated from PV at NREL will offset roughly 30 percent of the lab's electricity use.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

The Four Rs

By making the four Rs (reducing, reusing, recycling, and re-buying) an integral part of its operations, NREL also is working to establish a campus with near-zero waste.

One way the lab works to achieve this is by procuring products that can be recycled or composted at the end of their life. In FY2010, NREL's purchase of recycled products grew roughly 350% over the last couple of years as a result of green procurement practices.

The near-zero waste initiative relies heavily on employees' active participation. NREL staff has diverted 77 percent of its waste from local landfills through recycling, including roughly 126 metric tons of compost, in the last year. The lab also has experienced a surge in construction over the past few years; in 2010, contractors diverted 72 percent of construction waste as well.

NREL also is a government leader in electronics recycling. In September, the lab earned a 2011 platinum-level award from the Federal Electronics Challenge (FEC) recognizing NREL's efforts to help the federal government improve its sustainable practices. This is the first time a platinum-level FEC award has been available and NREL is the only DOE facility to achieve the newly-implemented platinum level partnership. In past years, NREL's efforts have garnered two gold awards and one silver award.

NREL achieved the award for tracking lifecycle data for electronic equipment, replacing old cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with liquid crystal display (LCD) units, ensuring the environmentally friendly disposal of electronics, and reviewing and revising NREL's policies to make the lab's information technology environment more energy efficient.

In addition, NREL drafted a case study on the new Research Support Facility's (RSF) desktop computing and data center policies. The study documented a 75 percent decline in NREL's overall power consumption at the user's desktop, and a drop to an average 1.16 PUE (power usage effectiveness), or less, in the RSF data center.

Photo of a man standing near four award plaques. Enlarge image

NREL Director of Sustainability Frank Rukavina stands in the lobby of the Research Support Facility with the national awards NREL recently garnered for its sustainability efforts.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

Greenhouse Gases in the Bull's-eye

Since 2009, NREL has achieved carbon neutrality for Scope 2, or indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the deployment of on-site energy efficiency, renewable energy, and the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Scope 2 GHGs result from the generation of electricity or heating. As the campus continues to grow, NREL will rely on energy efficiency retrofits and new high performance buildings to mitigate increases in electricity consumption.

The lab also decreased its overall Scope 1 (direct) emissions by providing heat using wood waste, reducing natural gas purchases by 19% in 2011. NREL's use of advanced fuel fleet vehicles also helps minimize direct emissions.

NREL strongly promotes telecommuting and compressed work weeks along with campus-wide recycling and composting to help reduce its Scope 3 emissions, which are in part tied to employee commuting and waste disposal. However, NREL continues to look for ways to tackle the more elusive Scope 3 emissions. "We do very well on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions," Rukavina said. "Scope 3 is really challenging. We have grown our population by 87% since 2008 and doubled our infrastructure. So, after taking an overall view of our total footprint, we are focused on employee behavior moving forward."

To support the reduction of Scope 3 GHG, NREL provides EcoPasses for public transportation and vanpool vouchers. The combination of those two programs offers every employee an alternate ride to work.

All of this combined has resulted in prestigious recognition for the lab.

Three National Awards Highlight NREL's Efforts

NREL was a winner of this year's White House GreenGov Presidential Award for an innovation, or idea, with the potential to transform the federal government's overall energy and environmental performance.

NREL won for the design and sustainable nature of its green data center, which is located in the new ultra-energy efficient Research Support Facility (RSF). The lab designed a net-zero energy data center that creates as much energy as it consumes. The data center also leverages the climate as a natural coolant, captures waste heat that is piped to employee workstations in the cooler months, and uses advanced equipment to minimize energy use.

"NREL's pioneering data center recognized with the GreenGov Presidential Award for Green Innovation is a testament to the Energy Department's leadership in realizing the nation's clean energy future," said Secretary Chu. "I applaud the NREL team for leading by example on their commitment to innovation, which is helping to improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution and save taxpayers money."

NREL was one of eight winners, in six award categories, representing federal agency teams and employees from across the country. A panel of judges that included federal and local decision-makers reviewed nearly 250 nominations and recommended the award recipients to the President.

NREL also recently received Environmental Sustainability (EStar) awards from the DOE for its "Sustainable Campus of the Future" and the "Cradle to Cradle — Near-Zero Materials Waste and Beyond." EStar awards highlight environmental sustainability projects and programs that reduce environmental impacts, enhance site operations, reduce costs and demonstrate excellence in pollution prevention and sustainable environmental stewardship."These are DOE's leading awards for sustainability and environmental stewardship," Rukavina said. "It's the highest recognition NREL can get from DOE for our sustainability efforts."

NREL is not keeping its sustainability strategies under wraps. NREL staff shares information with other DOE labs, other federal agencies, local agencies and the community through NREL-hosted training sessions, building tours, and interagency partnerships.

"All of these awards are really a culmination of many years of hard work by NREL staff," Rukavina said. "With our campus expanding, our work becomes increasingly important. We will continue to share our lessons learned and hope to have a ripple affect across the federal system."

Learn more about NREL's Sustainability Efforts.

Heather Lammers