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2019 Year in Review – NREL’s Top 20 Stories

Dec. 18, 2019

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) achieved many goals across the spectrum of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies in 2019, and the news coming from the laboratory shows it. Below are some highlights from the past year—click on each headline to read more.

1. NREL’s New Supercomputer, Eagle, Takes Flight

Several researchers and organizational partners stand next to NREL's Eagle supercomputer.
Partners from Hewlett Packard Enterprise joined NREL and DOE to celebrate NREL's new 8.0-petaflop supercomputer. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL
January 8
NREL already had the world’s largest supercomputer dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy, Peregrine—but with its replacement system, Eagle, the laboratory’s computing capability has more than tripled. Now in production use, the ultra-efficient Eagle high-performance computer will power scientific insights to accelerate our energy system transformation. With a peak performance of 8.0 petaflops, meaning it can carry out 8 million-billion calculations per second, Eagle also features a warm-water liquid-cooled design that was originally developed for Peregrine.

2. Five NREL Scientists Recognized as Highly Cited Researchers

January 9
NREL researchers Matthew Beard, Keith Emery, Giles Eperon, Joseph Luther, and Arthur Nozik were named among the most internationally influential scientists according to the 2018 list of Highly Cited Researchers. The achievement means their published work was among the top 1% of most-cited papers in their respective scientific fields. The list, published by Clarivate Analytics, highlights more than 6,000 researchers around the globe across 21 different disciplines. The NREL researchers work in various fields including engineering, chemistry, and physics. For the first three, this accomplishment is a career first; for the other two, it’s a repeat performance.

3. NREL Pioneers Cleaner Route to Upcycle Plastics into Superior Products

February 27
By chemically combining reclaimed polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, in the form of single-use beverage bottles, with bio-based compounds, NREL researchers produced higher-value fiber-reinforced plastics (FRPs) that can be used in products from snowboards to vehicle parts to wind turbines. Not only are the resulting composites worth more than double the original PET, the FRPs exhibit twice the strength and improved adhesion to fiberglass when compared with the standard petroleum-derived FRP.

4. NREL’s Economic Impact Tops $1 Billion

March 13
A study released in 2019 found that, in fiscal year 2017, NREL’s economic impact amounted to more than $1.1 billion nationwide. NREL continually seeks to expand its impact by working with academia, as well as the public and private sectors. In FY 2017, NREL had 739 active partnership agreements with 513 partners. During the same fiscal year, NREL signed $80 million in new partnership agreements.

5. Beneath Solar Panels, the Seeds of Opportunity Sprout

A row of solar panels above a row of vegetables growing on a plot of land.
Solar panels installed in coordination with agriculture can make more use of the land than either alone. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

April 2
By 2030, utility-scale solar installations could cover almost 2 million acres of land in the United States. Traditional solar development would monopolize this land for just one use: energy production. Low-impact solar development, on the other hand, might also improve soil health, retain water, nurture native species, produce food, and provide even lower-cost energy to local communities. The Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment (InSPIRE) project brings together researchers to better understand the benefits of—and barriers to—low-impact solar development.

6. New NREL and Georgia Tech Collaborative Appointment Program Launched

April 16
NREL and the Georgia Institute of Technology announced a new joint appointment program as part of an effort to enhance research collaboration between the laboratory and universities. The agreement establishes an official avenue for the exchange of Georgia Tech faculty and NREL employees across both institutions. The formal collaboration will initially focus on the fundamental research and development of advanced wide bandgap technologies used in electrical power transfer applications—such as vehicle drive systems, building technologies, and solar inverters.

7. ExxonMobil Partnership Will Support National Lab Research for Future Energy Solutions at Scale

May 8
A new $100 million agreement between ExxonMobil, NREL, and other U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories will accelerate development of transformative advanced energy technologies with a focus on reducing emissions. The Texas oil and gas giant, which reported $21 billion in earnings during 2018, will fund the new partnership over 10 years. The commitment from ExxonMobil stands out as the largest single external investment in research at NREL in the laboratory’s history.

8. Could Batteries Provide Peaking Capacity on the Grid? With Declining Cost Projections, NREL Analysts See Potential

July 10
Battery energy storage costs have changed rapidly over the past decade. What might this mean for future utility-scale battery deployment? New NREL analyses suggest some possibilities: as costs are projected to fall for battery storage over the next few decades, the technology’s cost competitiveness increases for a variety of applications—one being providing peaking capacity. In a recent report, NREL researchers document cost and performance projections for utility-scale lithium-ion battery systems, with a focus on four-hour-duration batteries.

9. White House Honors Two NREL Researchers with Early Career Awards

July 16
Mike Wagner and Timothy J. Silverman became the first researchers at NREL to ever receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is awarded annually and is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government to “outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology,” according to the White House announcement.

10. Three NREL Scientists Receive Prestigious DOE Early Career Research Funding

August 1
The DOE Office of Science selected three researchers from NREL to receive significant funding as part of its Early Career Research Program. The three NREL researchers—Davinia Salvachúa Rodriguez, Cara Lubner, and Andriy Zakutayev—are among 70 other researchers from institutions across the country named who will each receive $2.5 million over the next five years to further their respective research efforts. Read more about what each is working on in the stories below:

11. From the Bottom Up: Designing a Decentralized Power System

A female researcher explains information written on a white board to a male researcher.
NREL researchers Annabelle Pratt and Chin-Yao Chang collaborate in the Power Systems Energy Center in the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL
August 14
A far-reaching vision for the future of the electric grid is emerging at NREL. In the past few years, this vision has grown from a theory on whiteboards to real-power experiments on lab hardware. It's called "Autonomous Energy Grids" (AEG), an effort to ensure the grid of the future can manage a growing base of intelligent energy devices, variable renewable energy, and advanced controls. The AEG effort envisions a self-driving power system—a very "aware" network of technologies and distributed controls that work together to efficiently match bi-directional energy supply to energy demand. This is a hard pivot from today’s system, in which centralized control is used to manage one-way electricity flows to consumers along power lines that spoke out from central generators.

12. Exploring Tomorrow’s Energy Solutions, Together

August 22
NREL’s 2019 Partner Forum brought together energy industry leaders across multiple sectors to discuss today’s energy challenges and explore tomorrow’s potential solutions. While their backgrounds were diverse, the entities represented at the third annual forum had one thing in common: They all face very real energy-related challenges in the years and decades ahead—challenges greater than any one company or organization can solve alone. The goal is to inform future laboratory research and cultivate the partnerships that will develop and commercialize new technologies to advance the U.S. energy market.

13. NREL Marks Partner Forum with Dedication of Bioreactor

August 22
Installed outside NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility, a new hydrogen-to-methane bioreactor is the first of its kind in the United States. It uses a selectively evolved microorganism that feeds on renewable hydrogen produced at NREL and a diet of carbon dioxide to produce pipeline-quality methane. The microorganism, known as Methanothermobacter thermautotrophicus, is a thermophile, meaning it thrives in hot environments. The temperature inside the bioreactor is about 150°F.

14. NREL Appoints Three Scientists as Senior Research Fellows

September 4
A trio of scientists at NREL—Matthew Beard, Bryan Pivovar, and Paul Veers—are being elevated to senior research fellows, chosen for their significant contributions to NREL and the larger scientific community. Along with other current research fellows, these individuals will advise NREL executive management on the strategic direction of science and technology research and ensure NREL’s work continues to meet the highest standards for quality and objectivity. In addition, the Materials Research Society (MRS) named Peter Green a fellow. Green, the deputy laboratory director for Science and Technology and the chief research officer for NREL, becomes only the third person from the laboratory to be named an MRS fellow.

15. Automated Electric Shuttle Makes its Debut on NREL Campus

NREL employees line up outside to board the EasyMile automated electric shuttle on the NREL campus.
The EasyMile automated electric shuttle took its inaugural ride around the NREL campus this week.
September 10
NREL's intelligent campus ventures accelerated this year with the introduction of an automated electric vehicle in its employee shuttle fleet. Designed to cover short distances along pre-programmed routes, the fully electric EasyMile EZ10 shuttle transports staff and visitors around NREL's South Table Mountain campus. The shuttle can carry up to 12 passengers and is equipped with a full range of sensors and an intelligent vehicle system to detect obstacles and avoid collisions. Real-time data processing allows the driverless vehicle system to decide how to behave as it progresses safely along the road.

16. NREL Joins Forces with Other National Labs on $100M Clean Water Hub

September 23
The DOE has selected a research consortium founded by a quartet of national labs—including NREL—for a five-year, $100-million Energy-Water Desalination Hub to address water security issues in the United States. Called the National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI), its mission is to focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient, cost-competitive desalination technologies, as well as ways for treating nontraditional water sources for multiple end uses. NAWI’s vision for creating a stable and resilient water supply for agriculture, industry, and communities involves a circular water economy, where water is treated to fit-for-purpose standards and reused locally, rather than transporting freshwater long distances.

17. National GEM Consortium Honors NREL Director Keller

October 2
The National Graduate Education for Minority Students (GEM) Consortium honored NREL Director Martin Keller with its Corporate Leadership Award. Founded in 1976, the National GEM Consortium has a mission to increase the participation of underrepresented groups at the master’s and doctoral levels in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Since that time, GEM has awarded more than 4,000 African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans with fellowships, including an expanding number at NREL.

18. A New Way to Measure Mobility Potential of Cities

Three researchers view data on a large computer screen.
Venu Garikapati, Kay Kelly, and Stan Young, work on the Mobility Energy Productivity (MEP) metric that quantifies the efficiency of transportation systems while taking time, affordability, and energy use into consideration. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL
October 23
Many people looking for a new house have considered metrics like “walk score” or “transit score,” and even “bike score.” But what most don’t know is that these metrics, while useful, aren’t designed to capture the whole story of an area’s transportation options. The Mobility Energy Productivity (MEP) metric comprehensively quantifies the efficiency of transportation systems while taking time, affordability, and energy use into consideration. The MEP metric measures the existing and potential impact of all mobility options in a given area. And it does so in a way that assesses both existing and future mobility options.

19. R&D 100 Awards Honor Two NREL Innovations

October 29
Given annually, the R&D 100 Awards honor the 100 most innovative technologies of the past year and were chosen by an independent panel of judges. NREL technologies won in these categories:

  1. IT/Electrical, for PRECISE, a tool that allows utilities to identify optimal inverter modes and settings. PRECISE, which stands for PREconfiguring and Controlling Inverter SEt-points, maximizes the cost-effective use of installed solar systems.
  2. Software Services, for ResStock, a building analysis tool that allows states, municipalities, utilities, and manufacturers to identify which home improvements save the most energy and money.

20. NREL and HPE Team Up to Apply AI for Efficient Data Center Operations

November 18
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest buzzword in energy innovation—and when it comes to operating energy-intensive data centers, AI could be the key to improved efficiency. That's why NREL has partnered with Hewlett Packard Enterprise on a new research effort that will evaluate how applying AI in NREL's High-Performance Computing (HPC) Data Center could improve operations. By learning historical trends and training models to operate on real-time data collected from the systems and facilities, AI and machine learning approaches could improve HPC data center operational efficiency as supercomputers approach exascale capability.

The above stories are just a snapshot of all the amazing research taking place each day at NREL. Visit our News and Feature Stories webpage to discover more ways that NREL is pursuing science, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

Thank you to everyone who helped make 2019 a successful year in renewable energy research! Here’s to continuing to transform energy in 2020 and beyond.