Top 20 NREL Stories of 2022
Throughout 2022, researchers, staff, and leadership at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) worked together with collaborators and partners to advance renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
As this busy year at NREL draws to a close, we look back at some of the laboratory’s most impactful accomplishments from 2022 that are helping to build a clean energy future for the world.
In a milestone for renewable energy integration, General Electric (GE) and NREL operated a common class of wind turbines in grid-forming mode, which is when the generator can set grid voltage and frequency and, if necessary, operate without power from the electric grid. The demonstration at NREL using GE’s controls showed that the popular type-3 turbine technology can supply fundamental stability to the bulk power grid. Such grid-forming controls could allow the turbine to make up for fewer conventional sources of stability on the grid, such as coal or natural-gas-fired generators.
An analysis led by NREL is now underway to supply Puerto Rico with options for achieving a renewable, reliable, and equitable electric power system. The study, Puerto Rico Grid Resilience and Transitions to 100% Renewable Energy (PR100), will leverage the most advanced U.S. research capabilities across multiple DOE national laboratories to de-risk Puerto Rico's investments in modern, intelligent, and affordable grid infrastructure. PR100 will establish clean energy pathways for plausible, locally tailored Puerto Rico trajectories through 2050.
Researchers at NREL created a solar cell with a record 39.5% efficiency under 1-sun global illumination. This is the highest efficiency solar cell of any type, measured using standard 1-sun conditions. NREL scientists previously set a record in 2020 with a 39.2% efficient six-junction solar cell using III-V materials. Several of the best recent solar cells have been based on the inverted metamorphic multijunction (IMM) architecture that was invented at NREL. This newly enhanced triple-junction IMM solar cell has now been added to the Best Research-Cell Efficiency Chart.
DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) funds what is perhaps some of NREL's most innovative work. Since 2009, ARPA-E has provided approximately $2.93 billion in R&D funding for more than 1,270 potentially transformational energy technology projects. NREL has played a key role in many of these projects, ranging from developing new solar cell material growth techniques and improving grid control to reducing energy use in transportation. This story features five ARPA-E projects where NREL's collaborative, partnership-oriented approach has been crucial.
NREL Director Martin Keller said he expects the laboratory’s Flatirons Campus near Boulder, Colorado, will reach net zero emissions annually by the end of Fiscal Year 2023 and the South Table Mountain Campus outside Golden, Colorado, to hit that achievement three years later. That means that on an annual basis, NREL will eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas emissions to achieve carbon neutrality. The ambitious plan announced by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm served as the pilot launch of the Net Zero Labs initiative, which involves four of DOE’s 17 laboratories.
Powering Ghana: USAID and NREL Provide Technical Assistance To Develop First Hydro-Solar Plant in West Africa
The first West African hydro-solar plant was deployed in Ghana in January 2022, with technical support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and NREL. Once the Bui Generating Station’s full capacity of 250-MW photovoltaic generation and 20-MW-hour battery energy storage system is brought online, enough energy to power an estimated 200,000 households, this hydro-solar plant will put Ghana on track to cut its power sector greenhouse gas emissions by 235,000 tons per year. In parallel to the large-scale utility PV installation, the NREL-USAID team is also supporting deployment of decentralized PV in Ghana, enabling consumers to tap into the savings of rooftop solar.
Using solar photovoltaic (PV) installations to simultaneously create renewable energy and provide space for local agriculture or native habitats is known as "agrivoltaics." Both solar developers and those in the local community who care for the land—whether as farmland, rangeland, or native habitats—can benefit from agrivoltaics. An ongoing agrivoltaics research project called Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economies and Ecosystems (InSPIRE), led by NREL, has just completed its second, three-year phase of field research across the nation to study what makes an agrivoltaics project successful, finding that “the five Cs” are critical: climate, configuration, crops, compatibility, and collaboration.
R&D World magazine presented NREL with one of its annual R&D 100 Awards for research innovations. Including this year’s winners, NREL has received 72 R&D 100 awards since 1982. Given annually, the R&D 100 Awards honor the 100 most innovative technologies of the past year and are chosen by an independent panel of judges. This year’s winner, developed in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) Platform is a data management and analysis tool that helps cities improve their building stock and reduce carbon emissions.
NREL will soon have a new research capability to demonstrate large-scale power production using hydrogen fuel cells in an integrated energy system. NREL is collaborating with Toyota Motor North America through a cooperative research and development agreement to build, install, and evaluate a 1-megawatt proton exchange membrane fuel cell power generation system at NREL’s Flatirons Campus. The 1-MW fuel cell system integrates multiple Toyota fuel cell modules into a larger system to provide responsive stationary power. The system demonstrates a simplified design as a drop-in replacement to a conventional generator, and Toyota has developed an integrated control system to manage operation of the fuel cell modules to maximize efficiency and system life.
Options for decarbonizing aviation present significant challenges compared with other modes of transport, but achieving carbon-free air travel is critical for reducing the environmental impacts of global transportation. So NREL is putting its research weight behind efforts to bring new aviation technologies to market. On Aug. 9–10, 2022, NREL convened its sixth Partner Forum at its Golden, Colorado, campus, pulling together public and private sector leaders to collaboratively explore solutions for sustainable aviation. “This will require a holistic approach. Nobody can do this alone,” said NREL Director Martin Keller. “We need to build these partnerships and work across the traditional pillars of industry to accomplish this.”
What would it take to decarbonize the electric grid by 2035? A new report by NREL examines the types of clean energy technologies and the scale and pace of deployment needed to achieve 100% clean electricity, or a net-zero power grid, in the United States by 2035. This would be a major stepping stone to economy-wide decarbonization by 2050. Overall, NREL finds multiple pathways to 100% clean electricity by 2035 that would produce significant benefits, but the exact technology mix and costs under various scenarios will be determined by research and development, manufacturing, and infrastructure investment decisions over the next decade.
Researchers at NREL made a technological breakthrough and constructed a perovskite solar cell with the dual benefits of being both highly efficient and highly stable. A unique, inverted architectural structure enabled the researchers to record a certified stabilized efficiency of 24% under 1-sun illumination, making it the highest reported of its kind. The highly efficient cell also retained 87% of its original efficiency after 2,400 hours of operation at 55 degrees Celsius. The NREL-led team also added a new molecule, 3-(Aminomethyl) pyridine (3-APy), to the surface of the perovskite, which reacted to the formamidinium within the perovskite to create an electric field on the surface of the perovskite layer.
Imagine this: Clothing that charges your smart watch as you walk, buildings that vibrate in the wind and power your lights, a road that extracts energy from the friction created by moving cars, and flexible structures that change shape in ocean waves to generate clean electricity for communities around the world. Someday, we could harness these naturally occurring energy sources thanks to a fledgling technology domain that just earned its first patent: distributed embedded energy converter technologies (DEEC-Tec). The invention’s first patent is specifically for applications in marine renewable energy—clean power generated from ocean and river waves, currents, and tides. But DEEC-Tec could eventually transform sources of everyday energy, including almost all physical motions or dynamic shape changes, into electricity or other forms of usable energy.
How long does it take you to get to work or school? The answer varies widely for many Americans, depending on factors like where they live and whether they own a car. Many essential trips also gobble up fuel and an outsized share of household income. While insufficient mobility and accessibility have a broad impact, the burden falls most heavily on low-income areas, which typically have longer commutes, fewer transportation options, and higher transportation costs. Researchers at NREL have devised an innovative way to quantify and understand mobility equity issues: the Mobility Energy Productivity (MEP) tool. MEP distills three major components of mobility—time, cost, and energy—into a simple score that can quantify the efficiency of connectivity provided by one or more travel modes (such as biking, driving, or public transit) for a given geographic area. MEP can also analyze the quality of mobility for specific groups based on traits such as income, age, and vehicle ownership.
An underutilized natural resource could be just what the airline industry needs to curb carbon emissions. Researchers at three institutions—NREL, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Washington State University—report success in using lignin as a path toward a drop-in 100% sustainable aviation fuel. Lignin makes up the rigid parts of the cell walls of plants. Other parts of plants are used for biofuels, but lignin has been largely overlooked because of the difficulties in breaking it down chemically and converting it into useful products. The newly published research demonstrated a process the researchers developed to remove the oxygen from lignin, such that the resulting hydrocarbons could be used as a jet fuel blendstock.
Marquee NREL Partnership With Hewlett Packard Enterprise Continues To Build on Years of Groundbreaking Innovation
Eleven years ago, the buds of what would become one of NREL’s most impactful and successful partnerships began to bloom. NREL commissioned a new data center in the new Energy Systems Integration Facility, designed to house a new high-performance computing system—or supercomputer—and push NREL into the leading edge of high-performance computing. In 2013, Hewlett Packard Enterprise installed NREL’s first supercomputer—Peregrine—into the truly innovative new data center. The symbiotic relationship between the building and the supercomputer won an R&D 100 award in 2014. Kestrel is next up for NREL’s high-performance computing ambitions, with the laboratory hoping to bring it into production by mid-year 2023—around the 10-year anniversary of Peregrine’s installation.
On Oct. 31, 2022, NREL Director Martin Keller and Lithuanian Energy Agency (LEA) Director Virgilijus Poderys signed a cooperative research and development agreement for a multiyear study to develop pathways for how Lithuania can achieve a secure, reliable, and 100% carbon-free electricity system. The agreement’s signing officially launches the Lithuania 100% Renewable Energy Study (LT100), modeled after the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study (LA100). NREL and LEA will work together to evaluate a range of future scenarios and equip decision makers in Lithuania with answers to many critical energy transition questions. By embarking on this cooperation, Lithuania will also be the first country in the world to implement this study model to achieve a transition of its energy sector to 100% renewable energy.
Goals to shift to a net-zero-carbon emissions economy in the next few decades will demand rapid and exponential deployment of clean energy technologies that are made and transported sustainably, triggering big changes in supply chains. DOE and researchers at NREL are working with partners to make sure that the country's manufacturers have the materials, components, infrastructure, and other resources needed to meet ambitious emissions-reduction targets—while making the production of renewable energy technologies as clean as their operation. In 2022, DOE released a comprehensive federal strategy to strengthen America's clean energy supply chains, accompanied by 13 topic-specific deep-dive studies. Tsisilile Igogo, a researcher from NREL on detail to DOE's Office of Policy, was tapped to steer the entire series of clean energy supply chain reports and generate comprehensive policy options. NREL analysts led five of the deep-dive studies, which provided insights about policy actions needed to strengthen America's energy supply chains.
Eight scientists from NREL were named to the Highly Cited Researchers list in 2022, including two who are making their first appearance. NREL had the same number on the 2021 and 2020 lists, but not the same names. The researchers on this year’s list are Matthew Beard, Gregg Beckham, Joe Berry, Joey Luther, Mengjin Yang, Xiaopeng Zheng, Kai Zhu, and Keith Emery. Compiled annually by London-based Clarivate’s Web of Science Group, the list this year includes the names of 7,225 scientists from around the world who Clarivate said “have demonstrated significant and broad influence in their chosen field or fields of research.” The list is drawn from the highly cited papers that rank in the top 1% by citations in the company’s Web of Science citation index over the past decade.
NREL has been well known throughout its 45-year history for defining the cutting edge of renewable energy technology and, particularly over the past decade, become the definitive leader in private partnerships across the Department of Energy’s national laboratory system. Over time, presidential administrations, Congress, and DOE have invested more than $15 billion in NREL. The resulting resources, capabilities, and expertise have positioned NREL as the go-to partner to companies large and small across the globe looking for answers to complex energy questions. NREL Director Martin Keller refers to NREL’s role in partnerships as one of facilitation, rather than one of competition. In Fiscal Year 2022, NREL set a new single-year partnership contracting record, bringing in more than $130 million in new work.
The above accomplishments comprise a small snapshot of the incredible research and collaboration taking place each day across NREL. Explore more of our news stories to discover the myriad ways NREL researchers are advancing the science, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
Thank you to all who helped shape 2022 into a successful year! We look forward to continuing to advance NREL’s vision of a clean energy future in 2023.