2009 Feature Stories
The following feature stories take an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at how NREL is advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
DOE funds facilities to advance concentrating solar power technologies; global capacity could reach 20 gigawatts by 2020.
Excessive idling of trucks has been identified as a source of wasted fuel; NREL is working with the trucking industry to find big savings.
When DOE decided on a new office building, it asked NREL to set a new energy use benchmark. The resulting Research Support Facility does that and more.
NREL researchers are racing to come up with better and less expensive ways to make ethanol from cellulosic biomass. But they are hitting a wall—cell walls in plants that make the production of cellulosic fuels a challenge. So, laboratory scientists are creating their own computer program to help model and break down the tiny cellulose fibers found in plant cells.
That California and Texas still lead the United States in generating renewable energy probably is no surprise. But, NREL's 2009 State of the States report shows that several smaller states from Maine to Louisiana to Utah are closing the clean energy gap, confirming that every state has renewable energy potential.
Driving hydrogen fueled SUVs for 431 miles per fill-up is no longer a California dream. Researchers from NREL and Toyota recently completed a 331 mile round trip drive between Torrance and San Diego in two Toyota Highlander Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicles. And, with the fuel remaining, those SUVs easily crossed the 400 mile mark.
Foam shipping materials made from fossil fuels do a righteous job of protecting your new flat screen TV, but are brutal on the environment. Two Generation-Y entrepreneurs won the 2009 NREL Clean Energy Growth Forum with an organic, low-carbon technology using mushroom fibers to protect your most precious stuff.
The exterior skin of NREL's newest building will do more than keep the weather out. The concrete panels actually will be part of the Research Support Facilities' heating and cooling system. It's an old idea brought back to life in the name of energy efficiency.
Gusting Colorado winds recently helped usher in a new milestone for wind technology research and development. NREL and Siemens Power Generation "flipped the switch" starting the blades on a 2.3 megawatt wind turbine installed as part of a R&D agreement for testing turbine aerodynamics, structure and reliability.
Rain didn't ruin the 2009 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. University teams successfully operated 20 net-zero, grid-connected solar power homes for a week on the National Mall. Some used more power-generating solar panels; others relied on energy efficiency strategies. The winner was clean energy.
A new quick, easy to use and free software tool created by NREL developers seamlessly combines the building energy simulation of EnergyPlus with the popular drawing interface of Google's SketchUp, helping architects design healthier structures with fewer carbon emissions and lower utility bills.
The U.S. electricity grid is strained to its limit, and the nation's windiest and sunniest places are rarely near cities that generate high demand. Finding ways to string new power lines across several states is a challenge for even the most creative regulators and energy analysts determined to increase America's use of renewable energy.
Engineers design a new auto paint, a better solar device or a sturdier vinyl siding. But how can they know if the new products deserve a five-year, 10-year or 30-year warranty? Better a leap in technology than a leap of faith. Scientists at NREL have come up with a way, the Ultra-Accelerated Weathering System.
Going on a diet can be good for you. And maybe a gasoline "diet" of traditional fuel blended with increased levels of ethanol will be good for the environment and economy without hurting cars and small engines. Researchers are trying to find out because new ethanol blends could play a starring role in reducing petroleum use.
An innovative microbattery based on a NREL team's inspired digression already is bringing home major awards. But those involved with the buried anode rechargeable battery's ongoing development say the technology's greatest promise is as a building block for big batteries powering vehicles and storing wind and solar power.
NREL is no stranger to the spotlight when it comes to the discussion of renewable energy solutions for the country. And now alumni from NREL's Executive Energy Leadership program (Energy Execs) are finding their green energy projects in the national spotlight as they put what they learned into practice.
Generating 20 percent of the nation's electricity from clean wind resources will require more and bigger wind turbines. NREL is installing two large wind turbines at the National Wind Technology Center to examine some of the industry's largest machines and address issues to expand wind energy on a commercial scale.
The new NREL-led Center for Inverse Design will combine quantum theory, computation and combinatorial synthesis to turn materials design on its head. The center's success could accelerate the pace of materials discovery and trigger leaps in performance and efficiency in everything from sensors to lasers to solar panels.
Rather than seeing summer as a welcome break from scholarship, some dedicated students embrace the season as a time of new discoveries and learning. Eighty students from across the country recently spent 10 weeks at NREL tackling real-world problems in an internship program that benefits the lab, the nation and the students.
In a breakthrough development that recently netted a coveted R&D Magazine top 100 award, a small solar company has teamed with scientists at NREL to develop massive curved sheets of metal that have the potential to be 30 percent less expensive than today's best collectors of concentrated solar power.
Drivers of alternate fuel vehicles now can take a popular tool on the road. The Mobile Alternative Fueling Station Locator helps on-the-go drivers find the five closest biodiesel, electricity, E85 (ethanol), hydrogen, natural gas, and propane fueling sites using any mobile device with Internet access.
NREL's efforts to create one the of the world's most energy efficient buildings is putting a twist on an old building standard. The vertical supporting columns which will carry the weight of floors and walls in the new Research Support Facilities is made from recycled natural gas pipe.
Thin film photovoltaics made with semiconducting inks promise to revolutionize the solar energy industry with flexible modules that can be integrated into roofs, windows and walls of any structure. NREL has a unique new processing platform that enables scientists and industry to collaborate on efficient ways to commercialize the process.
In a step that is likely to make a loud noise in alternative energy, a pair of scientists at NREL has worked out a simpler, faster and far less costly way to measure manganese, the metal that helps green plants split water. The breakthrough could support the development of photosynthetic systems for producing biofuels.
Want a tough job? Try being a state legislator during a recession. Now add an energy crisis and climate change to the mix. Two dozen lawmakers from Washington state to Maryland visited NREL to learn about clean energy technologies and incentives as ways to retool their economies and protect the environment.
Partners from the private sector, the U.S. Department of Energy, and national labs including NREL are working together to drastically reduce energy consumption in commercial buildings. This week, NREL launched a new Web site dedicated to the collaborative research project dubbed "National Accounts."
Feed-in tariffs have helped to transform cloudy Germany into the world leader of installed solar power and photovoltaic manufacturing. In a trio of reports, NREL energy analysts say similar incentives could stimulate renewable energy development on this side of the Atlantic, too.
NREL recently hosted a very green graduation ceremony — the Veterans Green Jobs Academy saw its first class of graduates eagerly accept their diplomas before heading off to jobs in the new energy economy. A partnership with NREL to create a National Training Demonstration Center in Energy Efficiency was announced at the event, too.
There's a labyrinth in the basement of NREL's newest building. The maze wasn't designed to hem in a mythical beast or to confuse workers, but it is a trap — one that will capture the heat of the day or the cool of the night, hold onto it and then slowly release the thermal energy to help warm or cool the building.
Bright skies and creative designs combined for blistering speeds at the 2009 Junior Solar Sprint and Hydrogen Fuel Cell car competitions. The NREL-hosted event attracted 78 teams from 29 Colorado middle schools. For the 19th year, student teams raced solar or hydrogen powered vehicles that they designed and built themselves.
Senior Scientist Huyen Dinh has been with NREL a relatively short time but is tackling big projects involving millions of research dollars, worldwide collaboration with colleagues, and has welcomed a new member to her family. Motivated by her past, she takes multitasking to a whole new level.
Two years after a tornado annihilated Greensburg, the Kansas farm town gives NREL the city's inaugural award for helping it realize its ambition to become America's model green community with wind power and efficient new buildings. "NREL has made our lives easier and better," said City Administrator Steve Hewitt.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu made his first visit to NREL as secretary an especially memorable one — announcing $110 million in funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate construction of the Laboratory's campus, dramatically expanding NREL's capacity for renewable energy research and partnerships while showcasing some of the world's most energy efficient buildings.
NREL soon will be joining with Ford in a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) to study and develop high-efficiency thermoelectric climate systems for cars. NREL, which has been working for years to understand how cooling techniques affect fuel use and comfort, has developed unique tools to help the research.
Wind turbines are designed to last 20 years. But gearboxes and other key components are wearing out sooner. Engineers at NREL's National Wind Technology Center are working with industry to discover why and retool the design process to improve reliability, reduce the cost and help the nation reach its clean energy potential.
With a variety of green transportation options to chose from, fleet managers hoping to preserve the environment along with a bottom line can be excused for sometimes being confused. Through the Alternative Fuels Data Center, NREL helps fleet managers successfully support their company's sustainability goals with a variety of online tools.
After languishing for more than a decade, NREL's algae program is revitalized and expanding, as hundreds of companies try to commercialize processes to turn algae into fuel. Now researchers are focusing on a better understanding of algae biology and trying to separate myths from reality surrounding this promising source of "green crude."
Hawaii and Alaska have a few things in common: Their remote locations result in high energy prices, but they also have ample clean energy resources. And, NREL experts are working with government officials and utilities in both states to deploy renewable energy technologies and integrate these new systems into local grids.
NREL's South Table Mountain campus teems with wildlife. Its dry landscape is home to more than 200 plant species. The site includes cultural gems that speak to the region's past. And, NREL is growing. But growth for the future won't mean changing the nature of the place or ignoring its history. NREL staff is keeping a watchful eye to ensure that construction has minimal impact on the environment.
New administrative offices for the U.S. Department of Energy's Golden Field Office and NREL will be in one of the world's most energy efficient buildings. Planners have set their sights on achieving a LEED Platinum rating; employees, however, are simply dubbing the building as the "office of the future."
Sometimes the most efficient path to success is to find a partner to work with along the way. NREL uses CRADAs (Cooperative Research and Development Agreements) to help the best minds in industry and government team up to find solutions for alternative energy. A recent CRADA with DuPont sought solutions to make ethanol from corn stalks.
New Orleans is going green as it rebuilds after Hurricane Katrina — with a big assist from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. New homes and public buildings are being designed with energy efficient features to reduce energy use while remaining comfortable in a muggy climate.
Advanced hybrid-electric vehicles are poised to transform the auto market. But excess heat can sap hybrids' advantages. Researchers in NREL's Advanced Electronics Laboratory are exploring every layer of hybrid technology to reduce heat and dramatically improve performance and efficiency while reducing costs.
Colorado's governor recently honored NREL's Chuck Kutscher with the Governor's Excellence in Renewable Energy Award. Kutscher has dedicated 30 years to NREL, is a tireless advocate of renewable energy as a climate change solution, and is a writer, a teacher and a leader in the solar industry.
Science is fun! Just ask students across the country currently competing for a trip to the National Science Bowl. But there is a not-so-hidden agenda for Science Bowl sponsors: engage the next generation of scientists and engineers. "We truly enjoy science," one of the competitors says. "With science there are so many places you can go in life."
It's going to be a big summer at NREL's National Wind Technology Center. The national laboratory is installing two giant turbines from GE and Siemens for performance testing that will continue for years. The research aims to make turbines taller, larger, less expensive, more reliable and more efficient.
David Hsu came to NREL to make a difference by helping reduce the nation's dependence on oil. In the current economy, NREL is unusual: the national laboratory is hiring new employees, expanding its campus and planning for more growth to meet the nation's energy challenges. That's why NREL needs energy innovators, such as biofuels analyst Hsu.
In the current economy, NREL is unusual: we are hiring new employees, expanding our campus, and planning for continued growth. Driving this growth is the critical need to move technologies developed at NREL into the marketplace to meet the nation's energy and environmental challenges. To meet these challenges head on, NREL is hiring energy innovators.
The SkyTrough parabolic dish at NREL's South Table Mountain test site uses a reflective laminate over lightweight sheet metal to focus the sun's energy. The technology now being scrutinized by NREL engineers could make concentrating the sun's heat to generate electricity more efficient and affordable. "It's unlike any parabolic trough design used so far," says senior engineer Keith Gawlik.