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Twenty Years of Clean Energy

For more information contact:
George Douglas (303) 275-4096
e-mail: george_douglas@nrel.gov

Golden, Colo., July 3, 1997--A doctor stores a life-saving vaccine in a solar-powered refrigerator in a remote Brazilian village, hundreds of miles from the nearest power line.

Turbines in California harness the power of the wind to produce economically competitive electricity without producing pollution.

Instead of fueling a forest fire, tinder-dry fallen timber littering the floors of U.S. forests is converted into clean-burning ethanol to power cars.

These are among the many success stories of America's 20-year investment in turning the power of renewable resources such as the sun, wind, plants and heat from within the earth into clean, sustainable energy. On its 20th anniversary, these are the stories of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

NREL began on July 5, 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. In 1991, its mission was broadened and its name changed to reflect its new status as America's premier research facility for a sustainable energy future.

In those 20 years, NREL:

Helped slash the cost of converting light energy into electricity. The price of photovoltaic energy has plummeted from $15 per kilowatt-hour in 1975 to about 22 cents today. The photovoltaics industry could create or support as many as 3,800 high-paying U.S. jobs for every $100 million in sales.

Aided in bringing down the cost of wind energy from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1980 to as low as 4-5 cents in areas with good resources. NREL researchers believe electricity from wind turbines could cost as little as 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour at the best wind sites within the next 10 years.

Has been instrumental in pushing ethanol production from 50 million gallons per year in 1980 to more than 1.5 billion gallons in 1996. About 95 percent of the ethanol that goes into the fuel tanks of vehicles today is produced from corn at a cost of $1.22 per gallon, down from about $3.50 a gallon in 1975. Researchers at NREL and other national laboratories are working with industry to create fuels from other sources such as fast-growing trees, switchgrass, agricultural waste, forest waste and even discarded newspapers. Renewable biofuels such as ethanol can reduce our growing dependence on foreign oil while creating thousands of new American jobs.

Our use of energy from traditional sources damages the environment more than any other human activity. It also threatens our national security and the American economy. The U.S. now imports a larger percentage of its oil from foreign sources than it did during the energy crisis—53 percent today vs. 36 percent in 1973.

NREL scientists and researchers are among the leaders in looking for solutions to these problems.

Among the laboratory's award-winning technologies:

Sunlight harnessed to preheat building ventilation air saves thousands of dollars in energy costs for large commercial buildings.

A solar furnace concentrates sunlight to spot weld electronic components, deposit hard coatings on tools and machine parts and manufacture advanced materials such as high-temperature ceramics.

Old carpet, tires, plastic and other materials now clogging our nation's landfills are recycled into valuable chemicals. New devices help bacteria more efficiently gobble up sewage sludge and landfill waste and transform them into fuels and compost.

Compact vacuum insulation cuts energy use in appliances and improves the performance of catalytic converters. Renewable energy technology has come a long way in 20 years. Today, 8 percent of our nation's energy comes from renewable resources.

But much more needs to be done. The potential benefits are enormous. Continued advances in renewable energy could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, save American businesses $9 billion in energy costs, free up $8 billion in the budgets of American families and open up $425 billion in overseas markets. Renewable sources could supply half the world's energy by 2050 as oil prices and the environmental cost of using energy both increase.

The clear challenge for America is to find and develop affordable energy, clean energy, sustainable energy. And that's NREL's mission.