NREL advances the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies. Here are some of the many accomplishments celebrated over NREL's four decades.
Ethanol produced from non-food plant sources, called "cellulosic ethanol," can potentially replace 30% of our nation's petroleum consumption. But can it do so at competitive prices? From 2006–2012, NREL worked with private industry to create models, perform biomass-to-fuels test runs, and analyze market data in an attempt to answer that question. The result: the team proved that cellulosic ethanol could be produced for $2.15/gallon, a price that was cost-competitive with other transportation fuels.
NREL solar researchers found the winning combination of materials to create a high-efficiency solar cell: a bottom layer of gallium arsenide and a top layer of gallium indium phosphide, the first practical "III-V" solar cell (referring to columns in the periodic table). With each layer capturing a different part of the solar spectrum, NREL continues to push the boundaries with four and five-junction cells. By using lattice-mismatched materials and building solar cells in an inverted order to prevent defect propagation, NREL reached 45.7% solar conversion efficiency. Such superefficient, lightweight solar cells have powered satellites and the Mars rovers.
Regulating battery and power electronic system operating temps is key to optimizing the performance, lifespan, safety, and affordability of electric-drive vehicles. NREL innovations, including our R&D 100 Award-winning Isothermal Battery Calorimeters; Battery Internal Short Circuit Device; and High-Temperature, Wide Bandgap Underhood Inverter, troubleshoot battery and drivetrain thermal performance issues to make next-generation electric-drive vehicles more competitive with conventional vehicles.
NREL made building energy modeling easier for architects by creating the OpenStudio software platform, which works with SketchUp, a 3-D drawing tool that architects often use to design buildings. Companies have built onto the software platform for use in energy audits. EDAPT, for example, automatically generates a report that includes all information that utility Xcel Energy requires and more.
NREL's support of DOE's Clean Cities program provides technical assistance to early adopters of alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies and access to sophisticated tools, vital data collection, and fleet analysis. With NREL's assistance, Clean Cities’ network of nearly 100 local coalitions have saved more than 8.5 billion gallons of petroleum since 1993.
NREL developed the FlashQE system, which measures the quantum efficiency (QE) of solar cells 1,000 times faster than previous methods, making in-line measurements possible. QE measures the cell's response to the full spectrum of visible light, typically by measuring the response to one narrow part of the spectrum at a time. The FlashQE system accelerates this process by using 26 LED lights at different wavelengths to cover the full visible spectrum, with each light blinking at a different frequency. High-level math then pulls apart the resulting data to find the response to each of the 26 lights, yielding QE measurements as well as other data. The system is licensed to and offered by Tau Science Corporation.
As a follow-up to its success with cellulosic ethanol, NREL has turned its attention to the next generation of biofuels: so-called “drop-in” biofuels that function just like crude oil or any of today's major petroleum fuels, allowing them to be easily incorporated into the existing fuel infrastructure. From 2010-2013 NREL and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory led the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, an effort to winnow down the list of possible biomass conversion technologies and to prepare one or two processes for scale-up to the pilot scale, a critical step for commercializing the process.
NREL, Sandia National Laboratories, and Powertech Labs have developed and built the Hydrogen Station Equipment Performance (HyStEP) Device to measure the performance of hydrogen fueling station dispensers, allowing the stations to open to the public more quickly. The mobile device is a surrogate for the current time-consuming practice of requiring each individual fuel cell electric vehicle manufacturer to evaluate a dispenser before allowing its cars to fill there. HyStEP, developed with funding from DOE's Hydrogen Fueling Infrastructure Research and Station Technology (H2FIRST) project, will accelerate the development of hydrogen fueling station networks in California and across the country.
An NREL dynamometer facility designed for wind has undertaken first-of-its-kind research to help advance new ocean energy technology. The dynamometer, one of the only facilities in the country that can apply rotational torque as well as the side forces that mimic the sea's back-and-forth oscillation, will put Columbia Power's StingRAY wave energy converter through its paces to ensure the device can withstand ocean forces without damage. This research will help Columbia Power deliver electricity at a competitive cost while having a low environmental impact.
NREL and Conserval jointly developed the transpired solar collector for ventilation preheating in commercial buildings. The technology involves a dark-colored, perforated façade installed on the building's south wall. Ambient air is preheated by this dark surface as it is sucked through and then fed into the building's makeup air supply. According to Conserval, the technology can heat ambient air up to 100°F, displacing 20%–50% of a building's heating fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Marketed as SolarWall, the invention won an R&D 100 Award in 1994 and is now used around the world, including on the NREL campus.
NREL collaboration with the Big Three automakers—General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford—in the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles developed the nation's first production-feasible prototypes of hybrid vehicles viable for mass production.
The key to high-performance homes that pencil out is to identify the ideal mix of energy efficiency improvements that deliver the highest impact at the lowest cost. NREL's BeOpt (building energy optimization) software tool models options for achieving various levels of energy savings along the path to net-zero. BEopt has impacted thousands of U.S. Department of Energy Building America program homes by providing a consistent analysis platform that ensures accurate simulations for optimizing energy consumption and cost. And BEopt algorithms adopted by private-sector home energy rating system software tools have enhanced the efficiency of tens of thousands of ENERGY STAR-certified homes.
NREL collaborated with SkyFuel to develop an innovative mirror-like material consisting of polymer sheets incorporating very thin silver layers. This ReflecTech® Mirror Film was then used to create a parabolic-trough concentrating solar power system, called the SkyTrough. The lack of heavy glass mirrors in the SkyTrough make the entire system lighter and cheaper, allowing the use of an aluminum space frame, resulting in further savings. The SkyTrough is also shatterproof, faster to install, and features highly accurate optics. All told, SkyTrough should reduce the installed cost of parabolic-trough systems by 35%.
While electric vehicles (EVs) promise to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slash America's need for imported oil, the design of high-performance, cost-effective, and safe batteries has proven challenging. NREL is leading teams of automakers, battery developers, and other research institutions in developing the sophisticated software tools needed to create batteries for next-generation EVs. Modeling tools created by the Computer-Aided Engineering for Electric Drive Vehicle Batteries (CAEBAT) team will improve and accelerate battery design and production, boost EV performance and consumer appeal—and ultimately diminish energy use and emissions.
After a massive tornado destroyed or severely damaged 95% of Greensburg, Kansas, in May 2007, city leaders, business owners, and residents devised a strategy for rebuilding as a model sustainable rural community. Applying innovative, energy-saving recommendations from NREL's on-the-ground technical assistance providers, building designers and operators cut energy use as much as 50% in office buildings, hospitals, schools, and stores, saving more than $200,000 annually. Greensburg's successes and lessons learned, documented in publications and design guides compiled by NREL, helped create a replicable model for other communities to follow in the aftermath of disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
If the flap of an insect wing creates a wake, then imagine the dynamics taking place at a wind farm. That's what SOWFA (Simulator for Wind Farm Applications) does. NREL developed this open-source software to help visualize how weather patterns, turbulence, and complex terrain impact wind plant performance. SOWFA brings atmospheric science directly into wind plant flow modeling and control, helping both land-based and offshore wind arrays boost power output while reducing turbine wear and tear.
It has become a solar industry icon: the colorful, chaotic PV conversion efficiencies chart, originally conceived by Dr. Larry Kazmerski, and maintained by the National Center for Photovoltaics,. Devices included in this famous visual of the current state of the art have efficiencies that are confirmed by independent, recognized test labs (e.g., NREL, AIST, Fraunhofer) and are reported on a standardized basis. Long the gold standard of PV record setters, it charts the history of not only PV devices, but the solar industry itself.
NREL led the development of two ground-breaking studies: the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study and the Eastern Renewable Grid Integration Study. Working with large industry technical review committees, these in-depth studies have moved the needle on what utilities and grid operators thought was possible in terms of integrating wind and solar into electric power systems. From early on, there was significant pushback from grid operators that the power system could not incorporate more than 5% variable renewables. These two studies modeled penetrations up to 30% and showed that the grid could handle the levels with small modifications to current practice. These studies have enabled wind and solar deployments to go forward—full speed ahead.
Lighting systems based on solid-state light-emitting diodes (LEDs) enable enormous energy savings. However, fundamental materials challenges that favor blue emitters have led to a restricted palette of efficient white-lighting system designs. Inspired by our basic semiconductor research and solar cell development activities, NREL has identified new emitter material approaches for significantly improving the performance of red and orange LEDs. These new LEDs would enable highly efficient, cost-effective white-lighting systems with enhanced color quality and control.
Those developing new renewable energy projects need accurate estimates of the physical and financial performance of proposed projects well before the first shovel hits the dirt. NREL's System Advisor Model (SAM) is a do-all model for renewable energy, including models for photovoltaics (PV), all types of concentrating solar power technologies, solar-generated process heat, small and large wind power, geothermal power and co-production, biomass power, battery storage, solar water heating, and conventional thermal systems. Accessible for free, SAM combines the best publicly available hourly performance models with detailed financial models to help stakeholders in the industry make informed decisions about their grid-connected power projects. For example, SAM includes the PVWatts® Calculator, which has been used to estimate the energy production and cost of energy of grid-connected PV systems throughout the world.
The hottest tool rising to the surface in the up-and-coming marine and hydrokinetic community industry is the result of a partnership between NREL and Sandia National Laboratories. The numerical-code Wave Energy Converter SIMulator (WEC-Sim), first version released in 2013, is a publicly available, open-source device that models the performance of promising new WEC ideas. Unlike expensive proprietary tools, the WEC-Sim program can be modified to meet the needs of new devices, which enables WEC technologies to progress rapidly. At a time when the identity of the wave energy industry is just coming into focus, WEC-Sim promises to help establish a level playing field among potential players.
When a military installation loses power, operations come to a standstill, missions are cancelled, and national security is compromised. To address the need for utility-scale energy storage solutions that provide power system redundancy for critical operations, NREL’s Energy Systems Integration team has combined forces with Raytheon Company, Primus Power, and Advanced Energy to successfully demonstrate an advanced microgrid system that draws on batteries and solar photovoltaic energy for its power. The demonstration led to a pilot system at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, designed to power one building for at least 72 hours and the base has contracted to install a much larger microgrid.
Lignin provides stability to plant cell walls but is seen as a hindrance and waste product in biomass conversion to biofuels. Until now. NREL has demonstrated that by using micro-organisms to create novel biological pathways, it can potentially convert lignin into valuable co-products — low-cost carbon fiber, engineering plastics and thermoplastic elastomers, polymeric foams and membranes, and a variety of fuels and chemicals all currently sourced from petroleum.
Ever in pursuit of a competitive edge, the trucking industry is exploring innovative ways to cut fuel use and operating costs. NREL partners with American automakers, vehicle equipment manufacturers, and fleet operators to develop and assess solutions that maximize the fuel economy of medium- and heavy-duty trucks—from freight truck platooning to climate-control technologies to heavy hybrid propulsion systems. As home to one of the nation's few chassis dynamometers, NREL has the ability to simulate on-road driving in a controlled laboratory setting to gauge vehicle performance and emissions.
NREL teamed with Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Intel to develop the innovative warm-water, liquid-cooled Peregrine supercomputer, which not only operates efficiently but also serves as the primary source of building heat for NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility offices and laboratories. This high-performance computer (HPC) can perform more than a quadrillion calculations per second as part of the world's most energy-efficient HPC data center. R&D Magazine recognized NREL and HP with a 2014 R&D 100 Award and Editor's Choice Award for this innovative design.
With the flip of a switch, a tiny flow of electricity can change the tint of your windows. Pioneered by NREL and developed over three decades, electrochromic windows provide an automatic, adjustable window tint that allows you to control the amount of sunlight entering your building, keeping you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Cheaper electricity bills, more privacy, and a better view: it's all possible with a window technology that stemmed from NREL's research, spurred a new industry for U.S. manufacturing, and is installed in buildings across the country.
Converting cellulose from non-food plants to the sugars that are fermented for biofuels requires powerful, yet affordable, cellulase enzymes. NREL partnered with two leading enzyme companies, Novozymes and Genencor, to engineer a cocktail of three cellulases that convert biomass to ethanol at 3% of previous cost. The reduction in enzyme cost was a major step toward increasing the market potential of biofuels.
NREL offers the nation's largest collection of unbiased, accurate, and comprehensive data and web-based tools for transportation RD&D, with a focus on alternative fuels, advanced vehicles, emissions, fueling infrastructure, travel data, and policy incentives. The Alternative Fuels Data Center, operated by NREL on behalf of Clean Cities, acts as a one-stop shop for vetted information related to advanced transportation technologies.
It's super clean, but there's also an eww factor to geothermal energy. Certain "unsavory" gases collect in the condensers of steam plants and cut performance. When NREL developed a technology to condense spent steam more effectively, things started to smell rosier for the geothermal industry. Our advanced direct contact condenser (ADCC) technology not only boosted generation capacity at the largest geothermal facility in the world by 17%, it also stunk of savings by cutting the cost of hydrogen sulfide emission abatement in half.
Federal leadership is key to providing an impetus for the nation to realize the economic, environmental, and national security benefits of greater energy efficiency. NREL has been a consistent trailblazer in adopting high-performance building design innovations. In 2006, NREL laid claim to having the only LEED® Platinum federal building with its Science & Technology Facility. In 2014, NREL raised the bar even higher when its Research Support Facility became the first federal building verified to achieve net-zero energy performance, producing as much energy as it consumed. Today, LEED Platinum federal buildings are becoming commonplace, including six on the NREL campus.
As a customer, you want to get the full 25-year lifespan out of your solar panels. So NREL established the first international standards for PV modules and systems to make sure they last. The International PV Quality Assurance Task Force—a joint effort of NREL and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan—develops evaluation systems and certifications to ensure the high quality of solar panels, no matter where in the world they're manufactured. Now you can focus on what's important: how much money you're saving every month on your electricity bill.
Since the inception of the commercial wind industry in the 1980s, NREL has collaborated with turbine manufacturers to develop many of the technology innovations that enabled the success of the industry today. In the early 2000s, the Wind Partnership for Advanced Component Technologies (WindPACT) project explored improvements in rotor design to improve reliability and decrease the overall cost of energy. WindPACT partnerships between NREL and turbine manufacturers led a generation of technology innovations including pitch control and variable speed strategies, which in turn gave way to enlarged rotors for greater energy capture at reduced cost.
NREL's world-class modeling capabilities have underpinned several groundbreaking technical reports. For example, ReEDS was integral to NREL's Renewable Electricity Futures (REF) Study, which found that renewable technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, can supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country. Recently, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) released a study backing REF's conclusion.
To effectively evaluate energy-saving measures for new residential construction and retrofits, architects and engineers need access to software that can model the economics and efficacy of such measures throughout the design process. ResStock, built on the free NREL-created OpenStudio platform, is geared at modeling residential building stock for national, regional, or local analysis using the U.S. Department of Energy's EnergyPlus, a whole-building energy simulation program for gauging energy and water use. This innovative software solution makes energy modeling more accessible and affordable, helping building professionals design homes that consume less energy, saving homeowners money and strengthening the U.S. economy.
When you need to compare wind turbine model predictions with measured behavior, it's time for a road trip. Researchers from NREL drove a wind turbine with a 10-meter diameter wing span from Golden, Colorado, to NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California—and back—to find answers. While visiting the world's largest wind tunnel in 2000, they gathered data sets from more than 1,700 different inspection scenarios for their Unsteady Aerodynamics Experiment. This data set has an amazing longevity, being heavily used for leading research for over 15 years.
That's what NREL has been doing for 40 years on tens of thousands of samples, representing a couple dozen solar cell technologies. You name it—silicon, high-efficiency multijunction, thin-film, or emerging solar cells such as perovskite or quantum dots—and NREL provides reliable, unbiased testing, measurements, and validation of how well these technologies perform under standard conditions. NREL is one of only a handful of labs worldwide that can do this. Accurately measuring the performance of solar cells and modules helps researchers assess technical designs and compare technologies, and allows investors and consumers to make more informed decisions. We're the gold standard for solar cell testing.
A wind turbine that spins all day, every day will rotate more than 150 million times over the course of its lifetime. How can we be sure that it won't tire out? NREL's National Wind Technology Center has been answering that question since the early 1980s. State-of-the-art servo-hydraulic equipment in NREL’s research facilities can mimic 20 years of wear to a gear box in a few months. Blade inspection methods use the natural vibration modes of the blade itself to enable vigorous shaking of blades about as big as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Duplicated in research facilities around the world, these techniques have been applied to every certified turbine operating globally.
Scientists have looked at everything under the sun to figure out how to store renewable energy for use when people need it most. Turns out, the answer may be part solar, part wind, and part water. NREL and utility company Xcel Energy can use wind or solar power to split water molecules into usable hydrogen fuel. The Wind2H2 (Wind-to-Hydrogen) project is fueling fuel cell electric vehicles used on NREL's campus with wind that was blowing across the Rocky Mountains just weeks before. Perhaps the answer to long-term clean energy storage really is blowing in the wind.
NREL led the development of IEEE 1547, the national interconnection standard for distributed resources. This important standard allowed simplified interconnection to all generation and storage connected at the distribution level and had over 450 people from industry, academia, and government in the working group. What was once a hodgepodge of utility regulations was standardized across the U.S. and allowed photovoltaic (PV) and other distributed generation to flourish. Distributed PV has taken off so much in recent years, that new updates to the standard are currently under review that would allow active participation in these devices to increase grid stability and reliability.
Every wing has an airfoil, which is a fancy word for the shape of the wing's cross-section. But until 1984, when NREL developed the first airfoils designed specifically for wind energy applications, the industry relied on airfoils designed for airplanes. This caused poor turbine performance, thanks to the fact that wind turbine blades operate in constant turbulence near the ground where bugs and dirt come into play. Now, wind turbine manufacturers worldwide follow NREL's lead by designing their own airfoils, and turbine performance levels have increased dramatically.
NREL has been an innovator in university competitions to spur market transformation. The most recent include the Race to Zero Student Design Competition and the Collegiate Wind Competition. These DOE workforce development initiatives were built on NREL's success leading the Solar Decathlon (2000–2015) and Sunrayce, a solar car race in the 1990s. All of these competitions are proven training programs for students launching careers in the clean-energy workforce. NREL conducted the first seven Solar Decathlons. This project involved 130 collegiate (20,000 college students) teams to design and build energy-efficient, solar-powered houses; expanded to Europe, China, Latin America, and the Middle East to involve an additional 94 teams and 12,000 participants; and educated the public through exhibits and widespread media coverage and harnessing digital tools to reach millions of people.
Without a map, how would we know where we are going? NREL's leadership in resource mapping has provided a powerful pathway to ensuring renewable technologies are successfully deployed at speed and scale. These visualization tools have helped policymakers, researchers, and industry partners analyze resources and other important technology deployment factors—ensuring our technologies have an impact.
The Open Energy Information (OpenEI.org) initiative is a free, open-source, knowledge-sharing platform. A vast amount of energy-related data is generated throughout the world, but historically, access to this data has been difficult and limited. To address this issue, NREL analysts created a collaborative web platform called OpenEI.
Forty years ago, the U.S. wind energy was a Wild West show of innovative machines that often simply didn't survive more than a few months. To lasso this rodeo, NREL got together with international partners to develop a set of objective design standards and requirements that ensured any machine built, no matter how innovative, would be able to withstand the rigors of its environment. Reliability levels have taken off since.
NREL was a key force in establishing and developing performance contracting programs managed by DOE's Federal Energy Management Program. Since 1993, projects procured using performance contracting have leveraged $6.6 billion of non-DOE investment to improve federal energy systems. Resulting projects have provided a local economic stimulus, improved the operational resilience of federal infrastructure and lowered federal energy costs, enabling agencies to better direct appropriations toward their missions.