At its northern campus in Fairbanks, Alaska, NREL advances building technologies for extreme environments and pushes the limits of renewable energy.
In an extreme climate, energy efficiency is critical. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) ensures the clean energy transition leaves no one behind.
NREL's Cold Climate Housing Research Center – A Living Laboratory in the Subarctic
Alaska offers some of the most extreme and varied environments on earth, from Arctic tundra to temperate rainforests. The demands of the environment, combined with the ingenuity of northern people, has helped make Alaska a leader in energy-efficient design and construction.
NREL's far-north research center works with clients to incorporate energy-efficient design into disaster response housing, military buildings, government offices, hospitals, libraries, businesses, and other buildings. Researchers have a long history of co-developing these technologies with communities. Designs are evaluated in the lab before being deployed to ensure they are energy-efficient, culturally appropriate, and durable to extreme conditions.
NREL’s extreme climate research focuses on four key areas:
Buildings use 40% of all energy in the United States, and building envelopes are the primary way to reduce this demand. NREL's CCHRC designs super-insulated buildings that balance energy efficiency and moisture management, health and durability, and cost and environmental impact. These building envelopes incorporate advanced materials and techniques to continually improve performance. After being developed in the lab, they are demonstrated in homes and buildings across Alaska. Researchers measure efficiency, comfort, and air quality through standard data collection as well as engaging with occupants. CCHRC also works with manufacturers to incorporate the latest materials that support the circular economy into durable Arctic buildings. Through disseminating research and data with industry, communities, government agencies, and homeowners, CCHRC influences building practices across the country.
The changing climate drastically affects the way homes are built. For example, rapid permafrost thaw in Alaska and the circumpolar north is destabilizing buildings and infrastructure. While people try to adapt to the changing ground, researchers are developing new ways to build foundations that can remain resilient to future uncertainty. Many modern building foundations are adjustable, moveable, or incorporate insulation or refrigeration strategies to prevent the ground from thawing. Whether it's homes, businesses, or military bases, building on frozen or thawing ground requires a carefully designed foundation that factors in soil, building use, and budget.
Indoor Air Quality and Sanitation
Extreme climates often force people indoors, making indoor air quality especially important to health. Modern-day buildings are full of pollutants generated from cooking, off-gassing furniture and cleaning products, even people and pets. Add to that heavy loads of moisture produced from daily activities such as cooking and bathing. Without adequate ventilation, occupants are sealed inside with all these pollutants. It is unhealthy for building structures as well, as excess moisture can condense on wood surfaces, leading to mold and rot.
Today's building techniques can exacerbate the problem, as airtight assemblies and plastic membranes prevent the natural flow of air through buildings. Mechanical ventilation is critical to keep moisture and pollutants in check. NREL technologies improve air quality while maintaining the efficiency and comfort of buildings, balancing the many important jobs that a building must do in an extreme climate. Education and training are essential to ensure builders and homeowners understand their critical role in maintaining a healthy living environment.
Sanitation is another key component of healthy buildings. In extreme climates, developing water and wastewater infrastructure is often difficult and expensive. NREL's CCHRC has helped develop technologies such as the Portable Arctic Sanitation System, which includes a low-tech, gravity-fed water supply and a simple drying toilet, to make Alaska homes healthier and more resilient. These technologies are part of creating energy justice for all.
Integrating Renewable Power
Building energy integration is key to the clean energy transition. In an extreme climate, minimizing energy demands through energy efficiency is the first step. Next, distributed energy resources can be incorporated into buildings and campuses to provide energy resilience for building owners and occupants while supplying demand flexibility to the utility. Renewable power can also enhance energy security and resilience, often a major challenge in extreme climates. NREL's comprehensive building and energy system research aims to improve overall resilience for homes, communities, and even grids.
Renewable Power Technologies
NREL uses the Cold Climate Housing Research Center as a place to evaluate a variety of renewable power technologies to ensure they are durable, efficient, and affordable, even at the earth's extremes.
Air Source Heat Pumps
Heat pumps are key to electrifying the nation's heating and cooling needs. Heat pumps absorb energy from the outside air and use a small amount of electricity to move that heat into a building, much more efficient than electric resistance heat. In very cold temperatures, however, heat pumps lose efficiency and can succumb to problems such as icing. NREL is using its 40-below cold chamber to study how heat pumps can be improved at these extremes and help clear the hurdles to electrification.
Solar photovoltaics are also integral to the clean energy transition. Although solar is now the cheapest source of power in the United States, there are additional challenges in a place like Alaska, which has limited daylight in the winter months and heavy snow loads. NREL is developing batteries and thermal storage techniques to advance solar energy at the world's extremes while developing solutions that enable the electric grid to accept higher amounts of renewables. Learn more about NREL's work in renewable energy integration and energy storage.
Ground Source Heat Pumps
While ground source heat pumps (GSHP) can be a reliable source of clean energy in extreme climates, there are extra barriers to overcome. Traditional GSHP systems use ground loops to extract energy from the ground and deliver it to a building. In very cold climates without active thermal recharge from the summer sun, the ground is gradually depleted of thermal energy, making the system less efficient over time. NREL is researching how waste heat energy can be collected and stored in the ground to improve the long-term efficiency of GSHP systems.
CCHRC Communications LeadMolly.firstname.lastname@example.org